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S.D. Unified mandates COVID-19 vaccines by Dec. 20 for staff and eligible students; state issues own mandate

A large group protests vaccine mandates in front of the San Diego Unified School District office Sept. 28.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hundreds protest the district’s requirement, which currently affects students 16 or older.

The San Diego Unified School District board unanimously approved a mandate Sept. 28 that staff and students 16 and older be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 20.

The board meeting followed a rally involving several hundred people protesting the mandate plan in front of the San Diego Unified headquarters.

“We’re making a statement that we believe in the science, we believe in the process and that we are serious about this, that we want to protect children,” board Vice President Sharon Whitehurst-Payne said.

The mandate by San Diego Unified, which operates five schools in La Jolla, makes full COVID vaccination mandatory for students when the vaccine is fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for their age group. Currently the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is fully approved for people 16 and older.

The event was co-presented by a statewide parent group begun by a La Jolla parent and a UC San Diego professor.

On Oct. 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a mandate requiring all eligible public and private schoolchildren in California to be vaccinated once the FDA gives full approval for their age group.

The state mandate would take effect for grades seven through 12 the semester following full approval of the vaccine for children 12 and older, according to the governor’s office. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade would be phased in after the vaccine is formally approved for younger children.

The vaccine currently has emergency authorization for children ages 12-15. Last week, Pfizer and BioNTech announced results indicating that the vaccine is safe and effective for children ages 5-11, and the companies are pursuing emergency authorization for that age group.

San Diego Unified students 16 or older now have to be vaccinated by Dec. 20 as a requirement for attending school in person. Those who do not comply will be required to do remote learning via independent study, according to the district’s plan.

Students younger than 16 will be required to test regularly for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 until a vaccine is fully approved for their age group.

Medical exemptions will be allowed, but not exemptions for personal beliefs, the district said.

The mandate makes full vaccination against COVID by Dec. 20 a requirement for employment with the district. The district will be able to fire or otherwise discipline employees who don’t comply. However, staff will have the chance to apply for religious exemptions because federal law requires employers to offer that, board President Richard Barrera said.

Students may be “conditionally enrolled” in in-person learning in certain circumstances, such as if they are homeless, have disabilities, are in a military family or in foster care, San Diego Unified said.

About 65 percent of San Diego Unified students 12 and older have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, the district said, while 57 percent have been fully vaccinated.

The district enrolls about 14,360 students who are 16 or older. Of those, 62 percent have received at least one dose and 56 percent are fully vaccinated, so about 6,300 students will need to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 20.

As for employees, about 81 percent of the district’s roughly 14,000 staff members have received at least one dose, and 76 percent are fully vaccinated. About 3,400 staff will need to get fully vaccinated.

Alyssa Titus protests against making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for San Diego Unified staff and students.
Educator Alyssa Titus protests Sept. 28 against making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for staff and students in the San Diego Unified School District.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego Unified cited testimony from seven UC San Diego experts who support a mandate, saying it would reduce COVID spread in schools, reduce chances of kids taking the illness home to their families and help protect children from getting sick with COVID or with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a serious related condition.

A mandate also would help achieve herd immunity in the community, experts said.

“FDA approval comes with extensive safety checks, and the risk/benefit ratio clearly favors vaccination over the risk of symptomatic COVID infections, multisystem inflammatory syndrome and community spread,” Kimberly Brouwer, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at UCSD, was quoted as saying in the district’s proposal. “This decision would be in line with existing non-COVID vaccine requirements schoolchildren already meet for school and public health safety.”

A vaccination mandate also would help keep more kids in school and learning in person, pediatrician and state Sen. Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) said during the district’s presentation of the vaccine proposal. “That’s something that I know the vast majority of parents want,” he said. “They want their children to be safe, they want their children to be in school, they want their children to be able to stay in school, and that’s what this policy really is about.”

Asymptomatic students and staff who are vaccinated won’t have to stay home from school if they come in contact with someone at school who tests positive for the coronavirus, according to the state’s quarantine rules.

Students younger than 18 must have parental consent to get vaccinated.

Barrera said his biggest concern about the mandate is that students might be unintentionally barred from school because their parents aren’t aware they’re supposed to be vaccinated.

“We do not want to have students who are not coming to school not because their parents made a clear choice ... not to have them vaccinated, but because parents didn’t get the right information at the right time,” he said.

Parents, teachers and others against the mandate said during the board meeting that they are worried about potential adverse effects from the vaccine. Several said they don’t think the vaccine is necessary because children have been less likely to get seriously ill or die from COVID and no child younger than 10 has died from COVID in San Diego County (two in the 10-19 age group have died since the pandemic began).

Jacob Womack, dean of students at San Diego Unified’s ALBA Community Day School, asked the board if it was willing to risk losing potentially thousands of employees and students who may leave the district because they don’t want to be vaccinated.

“Is the district willing to lose millions in funding?” Womack said.

Medical professionals, parents, teachers, students and others spoke for the mandate, saying unvaccinated people are overwhelmingly more likely to get seriously sick or die from COVID, and that COVID can harm children.

“The FDA-approved vaccination is the best that human science has to offer. If you don’t trust it, you shouldn’t get medical care of any kind from humans trained in science,” Mica Pollock, a San Diego High School parent, said during the meeting. “We’ve mandated other vaccinations for generations to protect children. Vaccination mandates aren’t new; it’s just public health.”

California schoolchildren already must get vaccines for chickenpox, polio, hepatitis B and other diseases to enter kindergarten.

More than 1,650 people requested to speak against the vaccine mandate at the board meeting, according to the district; 83 asked to speak in favor.

Hours before the meeting, more than 350 people protested against the mandate outside San Diego Unified’s headquarters. The rally was led by people who have spoken against COVID restrictions and safety measures at other government board meetings across the county and have publicly defied COVID lockdown orders.

Among the rally speakers was Sharon McKeeman, a Carlsbad resident who founded Let Them Breathe, a group that has sued the state over its school mask mandate and helped organize anti-mask protests at school board meetings across the state. The group has 19,000 members on its Facebook page.

A leader for a North County-based parent group that sued California to block its masking requirement in schools said the group would push forward with the lawsuit.

Amy Reichert, an organizer of ReOpen San Diego, said into a microphone, “We want you to leave our kids alone” as the crowd roared.

Few people in the crowd wore masks, and many carried signs, some saying “What are the long-term effect of the vaccine? Don’t risk it,” “There’s a 99.998 percent chance your vax will not touch my kids” and “Why aren’t we taking ivermectin?” referring to an anti-parasitic drug that has not been shown to be safe or effective against COVID.

Many at the rally said they don’t have children attending San Diego Unified schools but they wanted to speak out against COVID vaccine mandates. Some speakers said vaccine mandates infringe on their freedom of choice and are an injustice that should be fought.

Let Them Breathe has started another initiative called Let Them Choose, which is leading the opposition against San Diego Unified’s mandate.

Last week Let Them Choose sent a letter to San Diego Unified leadership arguing that individual school districts or boards don’t have the legal authority to mandate a COVID vaccine.

Let Them Choose also argues that a COVID vaccination mandate would infringe on students’ fundamental right to an education by barring unvaccinated children from in-person school.

Some California school districts have adopted student COVID vaccination mandates in recent weeks, including Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified and Culver City Unified.

San Diego’s mandate does not go as far as Los Angeles Unified’s, which requires vaccines for all students 12 and older.

San Diego Unified student trustee Zachary Patterson proposed extending the mandate to students 12 and older, noting that the district’s proposed mandate would affect only about half the district’s high school students.

But other board members said they weren’t yet ready to approve a mandate for younger students but would discuss the idea at a board meeting in October.

— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Andrea Lopez-Villafana, La Jolla Light staff and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

Updates

11:50 a.m. Oct. 1, 2021: This article has been updated to include the state’s mandate and further details about San Diego Unified.