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San Diego Unified says it won’t require COVID vaccinations for sports and extracurriculars, at least for now

Jorge Olvera and his sister Mariana receive COVID-19 vaccinations in September.
(Kristian Carreon)

A memo to high school athletic directors had indicated a coming change in protocols for activities and sports.

For now, the San Diego Unified School District will not require students to get a COVID-19 vaccination before they can participate in sports and extracurricular activities, the district said in an email to parents the evening of Jan. 7.

The announcement came four days after a memo went out to high school athletic directors that appeared to indicate otherwise. The memo said, “There will be critical information with changes to our district protocols that come out this week about ... mandatory vaccinations for all student-athletes and students participating in extracurricular activities.”

San Diego Unified returned from winter break Jan. 3 as the Omicron coronavirus variant was driving up daily cases, causing staffing shortages in schools and straining their ability to stay open.

The question of COVID vaccinations for athletes is part of a larger court fight over the district’s efforts to require them for its students.

The school board voted unanimously in September to require vaccinations for staff and students 16 and older by this month.

An organization called Let Them Choose challenged the student mandate in court, and on Dec. 20, a judge sided with Let Them Choose and struck down the district’s student COVID vaccine requirement.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge John Meyer said in his ruling that the district’s mandate conflicts with state law, which gives authority to the state public health department, not school districts, to make new school vaccination requirements.

This week, Let Them Choose took the district to court again and said the memo to athletic directors was evidence that the district was going ahead with the mandate in violation of Meyer’s ruling.

“Let Them Choose was disappointed and surprised that San Diego Unified thought it could ignore the court’s order and issue yet another illegal vaccine mandate for its students,” Arie Spangler, an attorney for Let Them Choose, said in a statement. “The court order is clear that the district has no authority under California law to mandate any additional vaccinations for its students. We expect San Diego Unified to follow the law and abide by the court order.”

Attorneys for San Diego Unified argued in court filings that the district has not violated the ruling, partly because it has not yet enforced its student vaccination mandate.

Other district officials argued that Meyer’s ruling applied only to the required school day, not to optional activities after school.

On Jan. 6, Meyer suggested his ruling is still in place and that the district would need to obtain a stay from an appeals court in order to impose a student vaccination mandate, according to a court document.

The district said in its email to parents that it would seek a stay.

“We remain focused on ensuring that our schools continue to be healthy and safe for our students and staff, even though we cannot currently implement the vaccine mandate,” the district wrote. “We will continue to encourage all eligible students to get vaccinated and plan for the potential that the court of appeal will allow us to move forward in the future.”

If the district succeeds in getting a pause on Meyer’s ruling, more than 2,000 students 16 and older who had not gotten their first COVID vaccine dose by the district’s November deadline could be kept out of in-person school starting Monday, Jan. 24. They would have to go into remote learning and be banned from participating in extracurriculars.

— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer John Maffei contributed to this report.