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San Diego County judge denies request to immediately halt San Diego Unified’s COVID vaccination mandate

Teachers, parents and students staged a 'sit-out' in Balboa Park in San Diego on Oct. 18, 2021 to protest vaccine mandates.
Teachers, parents and students stage a sit-out in San Diego on Oct. 18 to protest school COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The school district’s mandate already was blocked by a panel of federal judges in another lawsuit, but the district expects that order will be lifted soon.

A San Diego County judge denied a group’s request to immediately halt the San Diego Unified School District’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate and instead said he will take up the matter Monday, Dec. 20.

The district’s mandate already was temporarily blocked by a panel of U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judges in a different lawsuit that focuses on religious exemptions. However, district officials say they expect that order will be lifted soon because the district has removed a policy those judges objected to.

The Dec. 2 decision by San Diego County Superior Court Judge John Meyer is the latest development in a lawsuit filed by an arm of Let Them Breathe, a statewide group based in North County that has fought school mask and COVID-19 vaccination mandates, including the one San Diego Unified adopted in late September for staff and students 16 and older.

Under the policy, those students and staff members are required to receive their second vaccine dose by Dec. 20. The deadline to receive their first dose was Nov. 29.

The mandate states that if students do not comply with the requirements, they won’t be allowed to participate in in-person learning or extracurricular activities and would have to learn from home via independent study starting Monday, Jan. 24, when second-semester classes begin.

District officials have said mandating the vaccine will help lower community spread of COVID-19 and minimize disruptions to learning because fewer students will have to quarantine or isolate.

Let Them Breathe argues in its lawsuit that San Diego Unified lacks the authority on its own to mandate a vaccine and that such mandates violate students’ right to an in-person education. The group also argues that personal-belief exemptions must be allowed for any required school vaccination.

The other lawsuit challenging the district’s mandate was filed by a Scripps Ranch High School student who argues that the district is discriminating when it offers exceptions to the vaccination requirement for secular reasons but not for religious reasons.

Unlike Let Them Breathe’s lawsuit, which calls for the district’s entire student COVID vaccination mandate to be eliminated, the Scripps Ranch student’s lawsuit calls for San Diego Unified to stop granting exemptions for secular reasons unless they accept students’ religious exemptions, too.

The district said it is offering exemptions to the student mandate for medical reasons, which is in line with the state’s policies on vaccination requirements.

San Diego Unified also offers vaccination deferrals for certain students, such as those who are pregnant, homeless, in foster care or from military families. They don’t have to receive the vaccine immediately, but they will need to get it eventually, the district said.

However, the district is not allowing student exemptions for personal beliefs or religious reasons. It is offering religious exemptions for staff because it is required to do so by federal law, district officials have said.

The state has announced it will implement a COVID school vaccination mandate, and there are plans to allow personal-belief exemptions once it kicks in. It already allows for medical exemptions from the 10 current state-required school vaccines, such as for chickenpox and measles, but it does not allow for personal-belief exemptions.

On Nov. 28, judges from the 9th Circuit temporarily halted San Diego Unified’s student vaccination mandate for as long as the district continues to offer vaccine deferrals to pregnant students. The next day, San Diego Unified said it had removed the deferral option for pregnant students and asked the 9th Circuit to remove its block of the mandate.

The court has not yet announced whether it will lift its injunction.

According to San Diego Unified officials, the judge in the Let Them Breathe case said there is no emergency that requires an immediate block of the district’s mandate.

“This is obviously an important topic to many people for many reasons,” Mark Bresee, an attorney representing San Diego Unified, said in a statement. “We are pleased that Judge Meyer took action to ensure that the matter is heard and decided soon, but with sufficient opportunity for the district and the court to thoroughly address the legal claims before making a decision.”

According to Let Them Breathe officials, Meyer denied their request for an immediate stop to the district’s mandate because unvaccinated students would not be affected by it until Jan. 24.

“While we recognize a deep sense of urgency on behalf of the families who are feeling coerced by SDUSD into getting the COVID-19 vaccine, the Let Them Choose community is happy that we put SDUSD on record in court ... stating that there are no repercussions for unvaccinated students before Jan. 24,” Sharon McKeeman, founder of Let Them Breathe, said in a statement. ◆