Petition asks the Virginia Department of Health to mandate COVID-19 vaccines in schools

One mother is asking the agency to implement new requirements through regulatory action

By: - October 11, 2021 3:39 pm

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A petition to mandate coronavirus vaccines for all eligible students and staff in Virginia schools has accumulated nearly 6,000 comments online — setting a record for the Virginia Department of Health’s typically sleepy regulatory process.

The request was submitted last month as a public petition to the Virginia Board of Health. Under state law, any resident can ask an agency to craft new regulations, according to Joseph Hilbert, VDH’s deputy commissioner for governmental and regulatory affairs. 

But amid ongoing debates over requiring COVID-19 immunizations for students — both in Virginia and across the country — the public petition process presents a unique way for concerned parents to make their case. The Virginia Department of Health must consider the request, even as state leaders appear reluctant to broach the issue.

Gov. Ralph Northam has so far been hesitant to implement a statewide requirement, saying it’s a decision that would have to be passed by the General Assembly. James Lane, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, shares the same view. So far, California remains the only state to mandate the vaccines for all K-12 students, both in public and private schools. 

“We’re in the process now of determining whether we’re going to grant this petition,” Hilbert said. “Honestly, we don’t get a whole lot of them. And this one is a record-setter as far as the comments we’ve received.”

The request was filed on Sept. 1, and the period for public comment ends Oct. 17. After that, the Virginia Department of Health has 90 days to issue a decision on whether or not to accept it — a process that involves reviewing all 5,992 comments (most strongly in opposition to a potential requirement) currently submitted online.

“At this point, I’d be willing to bet that we’ll probably get many, many more,” Hilbert said. If the department granted the petition, it would kick off the process of crafting new regulations and determining how to implement the requirements statewide,

The petition specifically calls for the department to mandate COVID-19 vaccines both for all eligible students and for all eligible school employees, with only medical exemptions permitted. The petitioner, listed as Kristen Calleja, wrote that her 10th-grade daughter “and all other kids have sacrificed much over the past 18 months.” But with the school year already disrupted by infections and quarantines, she wrote, vaccine requirements are one of the only ways to ensure safe attendance.

“My daughter and all other students should have a right to be able to attend school without being unnecessarily put at risk by other students and teachers who refuse to be vaccinated,” Calleja said. “The irrational minority should not be dictating the public health policy for Virginia or the schools.” Attempts to reach Calleja for comment were unsuccessful. 

Petitioning for the state to change its school immunization requirements through regulations, rather than legislation, is largely unprecedented. A 2020 law that updated Virginia’s school immunization requirements did include language allowing the Board of Health to fast-track changes or additions to the schedule. But it’s still not entirely clear whether the department can require COVID-19 vaccines for students without approval by the state legislature.

“There’s a lot of overlap in the child immunization requirements between what’s in the code and what’s in our regulations,” Hilbert said. “But we would definitely work closely with the administration in making a determination on this petition.”

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, pointed out that additions to Virginia’s immunization code have “historically” been decided by the General Assembly.

“Governor Northam thinks that’s appropriate,” she said. “We are still a long way from that point, as you know, since the COVID-19 vaccine has not yet been approved for children 5-12. Right now the governor is focused on our upcoming major effort to vaccinate children once FDA approves it for emergency use.”

Children 12 and older are currently eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, and the company asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to authorize the shots for 5- to 11-year-olds on Thursday. That raises the possibility they’ll become available for younger children within the next few weeks. 

Children appear less vulnerable than adults to severe cases of COVID-19, but the rise of the delta variant led to an increase in childhood cases and hospitalizations. As a result, public health experts widely recommend vaccinating children to curb the spread of disease and reduce the risk of more serious infections. 

Vaccinating adults is also one of the best ways of protecting children from the disease.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.