Students across all levels of schooling in Massachusetts will now be required to receive flu vaccines, a new mandate that state public health officials described as a step to reduce the impact of flu-related and respiratory illnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The immunizations will be required from the age of six months on for attendees of Massachusetts child care programs, pre-schools, K-12 schools, and colleges and universities, the Department of Public Health announced Wednesday.

Students will need to get their flu vaccines by Dec. 31 for the 2020-2021 flu season, unless they have a medical or religious exemption. Homeschooled K-12 students and college students "who are completely off-campus and engaged in remote learning only" will also be exempt, DPH said.

"College students who attend any classes or activities on campus, even once, must be vaccinated by December 31," the department said in a press release. The new flu vaccine requirement will apply to full-time undergraduate and graduate students under age 30, and all full- and part-time health science students.

"Every year, thousands of people of all ages are affected by influenza, leading to many hospitalizations and deaths," Dr. Larry Madoff, the medical director for the DPH Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, said in a statement. "It is more important now than ever to get a flu vaccine because flu symptoms are very similar to those of COVID-19 and preventing the flu will save lives and preserve healthcare resources."