SAN DIEGO — More than a year and a half into the pandemic, many things are back to normal. Traffic is back. Schools are open. And people are returning to work.
The problem, though, is that it really isn’t back to normal.
COVID-19 is still a serious health problem. It kills about 3,300 Americans every three days and, by the end of 2021, some 800,000 Americans will have died.
People are still asked to physically distance and wear masks. And parishioners are still worried about their health or the health of their friends and loved ones.
So, where do things stand in Catholic schools at the end of 2021?
Diocesan policies on COVID-19 safety have been determined by three basic principles:
- Adherence to Catholic moral teaching;
- Protecting the health of our students, faculty and staff; and
- Respect for the law.
“In our schools, we practice physical distancing, healthy hygiene, and require students to wear masks indoors,” said Catholic Schools Director John Galvan. “As a Church, we encourage, but don’t require, vaccination for faculty, staff, students and their families, and we follow all applicable health laws and guidelines.”
In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that sometime in the future, state health authorities would mandate vaccines for K-12 students. This announcement has been a source of confusion, but there is no public health order.
Starting in August, state health authorities required that all teachers and staff in public, private and charter schools be vaccinated or tested on a weekly basis to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
However, there is no current federal, state or local mandate that students must be vaccinated in order to attend school, “and the diocese will not introduce one on its own,” said Galvan.
Under current law, students in public, private and charter schools are required to receive 10 specific vaccinations before they can attend school in person. These vaccinations cover measles, mumps, polio and seven other childhood illnesses. For these 10 vaccines, there are no religious or personal belief exemptions. Only medical exemptions are allowed.
That same law, however, allows state health authorities to add vaccinations to the required 10, but if they do so without legislative approval, the newly required vaccines must allow for a personal belief exemption. Moreover, a state mandate may only cover vaccines that have received full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not an Emergency Use Authorization.
“If state health authorities eventually issue a vaccine mandate, barring legislative approval, the diocese will honor and respect any family’s request for a personal belief exemption,” explained Galvan. “It’s the law.”
Could the Legislature change the law? Yes, but the Legislature is out of session and will not return to the Capitol until Jan. 3, 2022. Removing the personal belief exemption immediately would require a two-third’s vote of both houses of the Legislature, something hard to do, given the political situation in Sacramento. Even then, it would be hard to mandate and carry out before the 2022-23 school year begins next August.
COVID-19 remains a major health risk, but things are improving. Three-quarters of all San Diego County residents age 5 and older have now received at least one dose of the vaccine and supplies are plentiful.