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Judge issues tentative ruling against San Diego Unified School District’s student COVID vaccination mandate

A project of Let Them Breathe sued San Diego Unified in October to try to stop the district's COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
A project of Let Them Breathe, a parents group opposed to school mask requirements, sued the San Diego Unified School District in October in an effort to stop the district’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
(Kristian Carreon)

Superior Court Judge John Meyer says it’s within the purview of the state Legislature, not school districts, to mandate vaccination for in-person school attendance.

A judge ruled against the San Diego Unified School District‘s student COVID-19 vaccination mandate Dec. 20, saying the mandate conflicts with state law.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge John Meyer said in a tentative ruling that it is within the purview of the state Legislature, not school districts, to mandate a vaccine for in-person school attendance.

San Diego Unified’s COVID vaccination mandate for staff was not affected by the ruling. About 15 percent of the district’s 14,000 staff members have not gotten any dose of the COVID vaccine, according to district data as of Dec. 15. Staff who do not comply with the mandate and do not qualify for a medical or religious exemption will be terminated, the district has
said.

The Legislature has written laws to mandate 10 vaccines for school attendance, ranging from smallpox to tuberculosis. The Legislature gave authority to the state public health department to mandate additional vaccines such as for COVID-19, and the Legislature said such new vaccine requirements must allow for personal-belief exemptions, Meyer wrote in his ruling.

The Legislature did not give such authority to school districts, Meyer wrote.

“The statutory scheme leaves no room for each of the over 1,000 individual school districts to impose a patchwork of additional vaccine mandates, including those like the [San Diego Unified vaccine] roadmap that lack a personal-belief exemption and therefore are even stricter than what the [state health department] could itself impose upon learned consideration,” Meyer wrote.

San Diego Unified is not granting personal-belief or religious exemptions to students because families could abuse that exemption as a loophole to not get vaccinated, officials said. The district allows religious exemptions for staff members because it is required to do so under federal law.

Mark Bresee, an attorney who represents San Diego Unified, said the district is considering its legal options.

“The San Diego Unified School District is disappointed that [Meyer] concluded only the state can act regarding vaccinations, even though the law specifically allows and encourages local vaccination programs,” Bresee said in a statement. “Even Judge Meyer acknowledged in his ruling that the vaccine mandate ‘appears to be necessary and rational and the district’s desire to protect its students from COVID-19 is commendable.’”

Meyer’s tentative ruling is a win for Let Them Choose, an offshoot of the anti-mask parent group Let Them Breathe that sued San Diego Unified in October to try to strike down the district’s vaccination mandate.

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

Sharon McKeeman, a Carlsbad parent who founded Let Them Breathe, said the group is thrilled about Meyer’s ruling.

“This decision that school districts do not have authority to require the COVID-19 vaccine echoes statewide and it shows that parents coming together in a grassroots movement to uphold our children’s rights is powerful and effective,” McKeeman said in a statement.

San Diego Unified officials have said their mandate is needed to help keep staff, students and students’ families safe by reducing the chances for spread of COVID-19 in schools.

In legal filings, attorneys for San Diego Unified have argued that state law gives school districts broad local authority and that districts are charged by the state constitution to keep students safe. The school district’s attorneys also contended that the state health and safety code does not bar school districts from making their own vaccination requirements because the district’s COVID vaccine requirement doesn’t prevent students from complying with the 10 required by state law.

Members of Let Them Breathe have argued that children shouldn’t have to get the COVID-19 vaccine because they are less likely to get seriously sick from the disease. Let Them Breathe parents also have said they doubt the safety of the vaccine, though serious side effects from it are extremely rare and health experts say the benefits of the vaccine — reducing the chances of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 — significantly outweigh the risks.

San Diego Unified’s mandate calls for staff and students 16 and older to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Students had to get the second dose of the vaccine by Dec. 20 to meet the district’s deadline of reaching fully effective immunity by Jan. 4.

Under the mandate, students who didn’t comply would be barred from in-person school and extracurricular activities starting Jan. 24 and would have to learn from home instead.

About 20 percent of San Diego Unified’s roughly 14,000 students 16 and older had not gotten any dose of COVID vaccine as of Dec. 15, according to the district. ◆