Petition asks the Virginia Department of Health to mandate COVID-19 vaccines in schools
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 on 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.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.
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