What comes to mind when you think of California? Sunny days, sandy beaches, healthy living, and laid-back lifestyles? Your vision may be true, or simply a positive projection from memorable West Coast filmed-on-location movies. Perhaps images of wildfires and the high cost of living flash before you. Regardless, there’s a serious issue looming: Our health freedom rights have been compromised, shifting the course of our lives—on the schoolyard, in the workplace, and how we raise our kids. There’s a saying, “wherever you go, there you are.” But how does that motto apply to hightailing it out of California?
By Liz Quinn
Is California a safe place for you and your family to continue to call home, or will the constant chipping away of your rights continue? After a complex legislative session in 2022, where a handful of child-related bills failed and others passed, Californians are weighing the value of staying vs. leaving the state.
How Did We Get Here?
Since 2012, legislators have introduced a series of bills, seemingly with the goal that every child in California, regardless of their personal health histories, be fully vaccinated. Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician who often receives more money from Big Pharma than any other legislator in the state, introduced AB 2109, his first bill on the subject, in 2012.
Presented as a fairly innocuous bill, it made the procedure for filing a personal belief exemption (PBE) more cumbersome, requiring parents to obtain a signature from a health professional on a form designed by the state.
SB 277: Stripping Away the Right to Choose
Three years later, Pan introduced SB 277. If AB 2109 was a paperweight, SB 277 was an anvil. It eliminated personal belief exemptions entirely, making a medical exemption (ME) a parent’s only option for a child to attend school if they were missing even one required vaccine. At the time, only 2.7% of school-aged children were missing one or more vaccines, and a mere 0.9% were completely unvaccinated.
Not only did SB 277 require all schoolchildren to receive a total of 30 doses of 9 vaccines, it also applied to preschool, daycare, and in-home daycare (where a 10th vaccine is also required for children younger than kindergarten). It didn’t allow parents to use, or catch up with, a slower vaccine schedule—doses had to be received as soon as they were physically permitted.
As a result of SB 277, medical exemption rates rose from 0.2% in 2015 to 0.9% in 2019. Proponents of the bill spun this as exemption rates “quadrupling,” however, the slight increase is easily explained.
While some PBEs were indeed based on beliefs, what legislators didn’t seem to understand was that among the PBE numbers were parents whose children had adverse reactions, family histories of adverse reactions, or other medical conditions or concerns, but who didn’t go the substantially more challenging route of obtaining a medical exemption because they didn’t have to.
They simply registered their children using a PBE. When SB 277 took away the right to use PBEs, these parents were left with no other option than to obtain an ME. So it made sense that a number of PBEs shifted to MEs.
SB 276: Four Strikes to Investigation
In 2019, SB 276 was introduced, with proponents spinning the 0.7% increase in MEs as being a result of doctors writing “fake” exemptions for profit. With the passage of SB 276, California became one of the most strict states in the nation for childhood vaccination requirements.
Legislators did at least leave intact the protection for special needs children, as those with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are exempt from the vaccine requirements.
Any lingering doctors who weren’t already witch-hunted after SB277, were next on the chopping block. SB276 removed the use of virtually every basis of ME outside of anaphylactic shock. Even if a child did suffer anaphylactic shock from a vaccine, a medical exemption may only be issued for that specific vaccine.
So a child who experiences anaphylactic shock after receiving a DTaP would qualify for a DTaP exemption but would still have to receive the remaining 15 doses of vaccines in order to attend kindergarten (three doses of hepatitis B, four polio, two measles, two mumps, two rubella, and two varicella).
It also triggers an automatic investigation by the Department of Public Health if any physician, regardless of practice size, writes more than four exemptions.
SB 871: Close Call
That brings us to 2022. Before terming out of the legislature this year, Senator Pan introduced SB 871, a bill that would have mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for children, and removed a parent’s right to opt out of newly added vaccines.
Currently, when the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) adds a new vaccine to the required list, they must allow PBEs for that vaccine. Under SB 871, the CDPH would be able to add any vaccine without going through the legislative process.
Fortunately, the news that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine efficacy dropped to just 12% in children 5–11, broke before the bill made it through the legislature. This finding likely made already-hesitant parents more reluctant to vaccinate, and frustrated those who had already complied.
With low vaccination rates in schoolchildren, the number of kids who would have been pushed into online learning was likely to be both logistically overwhelming and financially devastating for schools. Ultimately, Pan decided to pull the bill.
Legislative Horizon: Current Concerns
This year’s legislative session ended with several bills of concern signed into law by Governor Newsom. They will take effect January 2023.
- SB 1479 COVID-19 - Testing plans for schools: Requires public schools to have a COVID-19 testing plan from 2023 until 2025. The bill does not require testing, only a plan for testing, based on CDPH guidance. However, if CDPH decides to require testing, schools would have to follow suit.
- AB 1797 - Immunization Registry: Requires that healthcare providers enter every vaccination given to every Californian, regardless of age, into the CA Immunization Registry (CAIR), a state database, with no choice to opt out.
- AB 2098 - Physician “Misinformation”: A bill that says doctors will be disciplined if they disseminate information that goes against standard of care and “contemporary scientific consensus.” This legislation is particularly alarming, as most scientific advances come out of discussion; not by stifling conversation. With an ever-evolving, new “disease” like COVID-19, information changes rapidly. This is the kind of bill that will likely hold California back from scientific advancement out of fear from the very practitioners whose variety of expertise and experience could otherwise be an asset.
- SB 1419 - Health Information of Minors: A bill that prohibits parents from accessing their children’s sensitive medical records regarding treatment sanctioned without their parents consent, such as mental health and reproductive-related services, among others, once the child turns 12.
Governor Newsom’s Inconsistencies on Health
Upon signing SB 107, a bill that protects families who seek gender-affirming health care for their children in California, Newsom said:
“Parents know what’s best for their kids, and they should be able to make decisions around the health of their children without fear. We must take a stand for parental choice.”
Quite an interesting declaration from the same person who declared the nation’s first COVID-19 vaccine mandate for schoolchildren, regardless of their parents’ wishes.
The now-infamous French Laundry scandal in which Newsom dined indoors, unmasked, and shoulder-to-shoulder with top California Medical Association lobbyist Janus Norman and cohorts (about a month after urging non-elite Californians to mask up “between bites” at restaurants) drew a lot of attention. An event far less covered by the media was Newsom’s staunch defense of prison guards against the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
It was a peculiar turnaround from his own mandate for state employees and even schoolchildren. As Newsom stated in July 2021:
“We are now dealing with a pandemic of the unvaccinated … As the state’s largest employer, we are leading by example and requiring all state and health care workers to show proof of vaccination or be tested regularly.”
A month after defeating the September recall, Newsom went to court to fight against the mandate for prison guards, who donated $1.75 million to his recall defense, at the same time he was declaring his “first-in-the-nation” mandate for children.
Although SB 871 was pulled, Governor Newsom hasn’t officially rescinded his schoolchildren COVID-19 vaccine mandate, rather postponing it until possibly July 2023. Even if Newsom were to instruct CDPH to add COVID-19 to the mandated list of vaccines for school entry, legally, parents would have the right to opt their kids out. However, as we’ve seen with LAUSD’s attempt to enforce a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, the opt-out isn’t that simple.
In September 2021, LAUSD’s school board voted unanimously to mandate the vaccine for all students 12 years and older in order to attend class in person. Teachers and staff were not allowed on campus without being vaccinated. Those teachers whose religious exemptions were granted, were sent to the District’s “City of Angels” online learning program.
LAUSD’s version of accepting students who opted out was to send them all to online learning. By December 2021, that would mean 30,000+ students forced from in-person to remote learning, and the District decided to delay enforcing the mandate.
Pandemic Policy Effects
As the state whose classrooms remained closed to in-person learning longer than any other, California has likely only begun to see the damage to children, in terms of both social-emotional, and academic learning loss. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in April of this year ranked California 47th in overall “pandemic performance” and last (excluding D.C.) in cumulative in-person education.
As the second largest school district in the country, LAUSD’s school board has been aggressive about COVID-19 measures, from creating a digital “passport” for kids to attend school, to extended masking, mandatory weekly testing, and attempting to illegally enforce their own COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The district was so forceful with its attempts to implement the vaccine mandate that it denied parents their legal right to opt out and still have their kids attend in-person school. The San Diego Unified School Board also voted unanimously to mandate the vaccine. Parents in both districts sued, and the courts in both cases ruled in favor of the parents. (In the case of LAUSD, by the time the judge issued his ruling, the district had already withdrawn its mandate.
The fierceness with which the districts pursued a policy they had no legal right to administer, shows an alarming lack of concern and respect for individuals’ rights, as does teachers union (UTLA) president Cecily Myart-Cruz’s comments regarding closed schools.
In an August 2021 interview with LA Magazine, Myart-Cruz denied that learning loss even existed, saying:
“There is no such thing as learning loss. Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables.”
She says kids learned resilience, survival, and critical thinking skills. Among other things:
“They know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words insurrection and coup.”
Unfortunately for California students, learning loss is very much a reality. The recent release of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, testing 4th and 8th graders in reading and math, showed the lowest scores since the program began in 1990. According to Education Week, “about a third of students in both grades can’t read at even the ‘basic’ achievement level—the lowest level on the test.”
With a legislature that continues to work toward removing parental rights, a governor who threatens vaccine mandates, giving preferential treatment to his donors, and school boards that show a willful disregard for certain families, it’s no wonder the state has seen enrollment plummet in recent years.
Californians Jump Ship in Record Numbers
In 2020, school enrollment in California dropped by a staggering 160,000 students. The state anticipated numbers would go up again as schools returned to in-person learning, but in 2021, enrollment dropped again by 110,000 students. LAUSD alone lost 27,000 students, a drop three times greater than its own planners anticipated.
As the L.A. Times noted, enrollment has experienced “a downward trend since 2014-15.” The reasons for this are surely multifaceted, but it’s worth noting that requirements within AB 2109, making PBEs more difficult to obtain, took effect in 2014.
The elimination of PBEs took effect in 2015, and what was essentially the elimination of MEs took hold in 2021. While housing and general cost of living is a substantial motivation for families to leave California, the increasingly strict mandates haven’t done the state’s public education system any favors, forcing families out over personal beliefs and medical choices.
Whether it’s the cost of housing, soaring gas prices, nerve-racking traffic, growing homelessness and crime, increasingly invasive policies on bodily autonomy, or the removal of parental rights, many Californians are parting ways, and heading for states where these issues are less pervasive.
The 2020 census recorded such a hefty decline in residents, that California lost a congressional seat for the first time in history. In 2020, U-Haul actually ran out of one-way rental trucks leaving California. According to U-Haul, the top destinations were Texas, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Arizona, so it’s no surprise that Texas gained two congressional seats, and Florida, one.
Now for a 180-degree shift. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging a love affair with California; you certainly wouldn’t be alone in your infatuation. As many factors influence your life, let’s highlight some of the best of what California offers. The following list doesn’t apply to every square inch of the state, as individual cities and towns differ in their offerings and nuances. In fact, it’s been said that Southern California and Northern California are so different, they may as well be two different states.
- Locally-sourced organic, peak-frequency fruits and vegetables year-round
- Breathtaking California coastline plus 9 national parks
- LGBTQ-friendliness and inclusion (for the most part; more than some other places)
- Healthy living collective consciousness
- Mild weather (comparatively speaking w/ 260+ days of sunshine/year)
- Racial diversity (California’s a melting pot)
- Homeschooling support and protection of rights
- Forward-thinking grassroots movements
For Those Who Decide to Flee California…
Keep in mind that moving to a new location is at the top of the list for stressful life events. Decision-making, including choosing which items will come with you, packing, and budgeting, can be overwhelming. Preparation is key, especially for kids who might have a hard time adjusting; leaving friends, school, and familiar day-to-day routines behind.
If the proposition of bills to force vaccines, as well as testing, and statewide databases become the collective last straw for families, where can they go? One of the best resources for parents is the National Vaccine Information Center which lists vaccine policies state-by-state. Currently, all states allow for medical exemptions (although, as discussed, “allowing” them doesn’t mean a parent can actually obtain one, namely in California), 44 allow religious exemptions (REs), and 16 allow PBEs and REs.
Policies during the pandemic are another source of guidance in terms of likely future guidelines. As the Biden administration declared a vaccine mandate for federal employees and contractors, as well as companies with at least 100 employees, a handful of states went to court or to their legislatures to protect individual medical choice.
Montana was the first state to pass a law that prohibited employment discrimination based on vaccine status. Six more states—Arizona, Florida, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas—followed suit, via legislation or executive order.
Outside of K-12 school mandates, another issue worth considering is COVID-19 vaccination policy within universities. The last thing parents want is to pack up and move to protect their children, just to have them graduate and face discrimination at the university level.
Information regarding which colleges require the COVID-19 vaccine can be found from the group, No College Mandates. There is also a group called College Health Policies, a source of information and community support on the subject.
For Those Who Decide to Stay in California…
For those who decide to remain in California, there are ways to minimize the effects of what some consider government overreach into personal health.
Make your “plan B.” As many parents have recently found, one risk of staying in California is that those who were fortunate enough to obtain a medical exemption for their child prior to 2021 are not necessarily safe. SB 276 added that if a doctor has ever been disciplined for any reason whatsoever, usually having nothing to do with vaccination, every ME from that doctor is automatically and immediately revoked.
Typically, you aren't notified until the school year is underway, at which point you have 30 days to appeal, or begin the arduous vaccine catch-up schedule. This has left thousands of parents scrambling to make the potentially life-altering decision whether to give in, pull their kids out of school and immediately homeschool, or move out of California. There are many resources for those considering homeschooling, including the Home School Legal Defense Association.
Protect yourself from the newly-passed bills. Under AB 1797, the Immunization Registry bill, Californians cannot opt out of this database. However, you can lock your CAIR record and your children’s by submitting a form. Medical offices can still access your records if they’re locked, but schools and other care facilities cannot.
As a parent, you will be left with no option except court, to access certain types of your children’s medical records after SB 1419 takes effect in January 2023; hopefully it never comes to that. The best defense against this bill is keeping an honest, open dialogue with your children and maintaining a supportive, loving relationship, so ideally they come to you with any sensitive issues. Additionally, your child can write and sign a medical release letter, giving you full access to their medical records, samples of which can be found here.
Find your “people.” Because bodily choice, including vaccines and reproductive rights, is such a gigantic, polarizing subject, it can feel daunting to find like-minded individuals. Rest assured; they are out there. Something as simple as expressing uncertainty or asking questions about COVID-19 vaccination for children, can lure other parents out, as they realize they’re not alone.
There are Facebook groups for health freedom, medical choice, etc, as well as groups such as StandUpCA, that you can join for support and a sense of belonging.
You can also seek out school districts that have advocated for common sense guidelines and personal choice regarding masking and vaccination, etc. Several times throughout the pandemic, and as recently as September 2022, many superintendents have signed letters to state policymakers like Gavin Newsom and Dr. Barbara Ferrer, asking for reasonable guidance and choice for students.
Get to know your reps. When you hear of an event hosted by your legislators, strap on your shoes, and go. Get to know them in the down times. Having a relationship with your representatives can make it easier to gain their attention when bills come up. Keep in mind that your goal is for them to be on your side, so however their voting in the past may have upset you, be respectful in your interactions.
Whether staying in California or choosing to go elsewhere, remaining vigilant on behalf of your family’s health rights is vital to your peace of mind and sense of authenticity. Continue to investigate all possibilities, and take action where you can be most useful. Like-minded people are out there wherever you may live—you are not alone.
If you'd like to contact A Voice For Choice Advocacy, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.