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San Diego Unified School District postpones student COVID-19 vaccination mandate again, at least to July 2023

COVID-19

The district also sets a plan for bringing back an indoor mask mandate when certain COVID conditions are met.

The San Diego Unified School District board voted May 24 to delay its student COVID-19 vaccination mandate a second time, at least until July 2023.

The district also announced a plan it recently adopted that would trigger a temporary resumption of its indoor mask mandate when there’s a surge in COVID cases or student sickness levels.

The district is following the lead of state leaders and other school districts, including Sweetwater Union High and Los Angeles Unified, that have postponed their student COVID vaccination mandates to next summer amid delays in full federal approval of a vaccine for children younger than 16 and evidence of waning effectiveness of the vaccines against coronavirus variants.

Dr. Howard Taras, a UC San Diego pediatrician who has been advising San Diego Unified on COVID matters, said at the May 24 board meeting that the effectiveness of the two-dose COVID vaccines in preventing reinfection months after getting the shots has declined from the original 90 percent to 58 percent after the Delta variant and 35 percent after the Omicron variant.

“So if a great deal of the impetus to have a vaccine mandate was to lower the number of kids who were missing school, that has somewhat waned,” Taras said.

And after several months of San Diego Unified promoting COVID vaccination, its vaccination rate for students 16 and older has plateaued at 80 percent.

“The likelihood of making a dent in that is questionable,” Taras said.

COVID vaccination rates are lower for San Diego Unified’s younger students. About 67 percent of students ages 12-15 and 42 percent of students ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated, according to the district. Overall, 56 percent of students 5 and older are fully vaccinated.

School board student trustee Zachary Patterson abstained from the board’s vote on the mandate delay, saying he thought it was ironic that the district was postponing its mandate after all the effort it had put into it.

The postponement is intended to align the district with the state’s mandate and timeline, Susan Barndollar, San Diego Unified’s executive director of nursing, said at the meeting.

Barndollar said the district’s positivity rate on coronavirus tests has been significantly lower than the county rate throughout the school year and there has been little evidence of significant in-school COVID transmission.

In the meantime, rather than requiring student vaccinations, the district plans to ramp up other COVID mitigation measures whenever there’s a surge in the disease.

That includes temporarily reinstating its indoor mask mandate when certain conditions are met.

According to district guidelines, a San Diego Unified school would have to require masks indoors for at least 14 days when at least three classroom outbreaks have occurred at the school during the past 14 days and when more than 5 percent of the school’s students and staff have COVID. A school also would have to require masks when at least 10 percent of its students are out sick each day for three consecutive days.

San Diego Unified will resume a districtwide mask mandate when San Diego County is considered to have a high level of COVID spread, according to guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The district says it also will continue other mitigation measures, including offering coronavirus testing, using improved air filtration systems and promoting vaccinations.

San Diego Unified’s student vaccination mandate was originally adopted in September and would have required students 16 and older to be fully vaccinated by last December. But the measure was struck down in late December by a judge who said school districts are not allowed to implement their own vaccination mandates.

San Diego Unified appealed that ruling, and the court allowed the district to continue with its mandate while the appeal is pending. Still, in February the district postponed implementation of the mandate to the 2022-23 school year because of logistical difficulties in implementing a mandate midyear.

Under that plan, the district would have implemented the mandate for students 16 and older starting June 21 for summer school, July 30 for students participating in fall extracurricular activities and Aug. 29 for all other students.

California had planned to require the COVID vaccine for students 12 and older by July this year, but that was contingent on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approving the vaccine for children 12 and up, which hasn’t happened yet. The vaccine currently has emergency use authorization for children ages 5-15.

Sharon McKeeman, founder of the organization Let Them Breathe, which sued San Diego Unified over its student COVID vaccination mandate, said the latest delay is “a step in the right direction.”

“It’s unfortunate that it takes this legal pressure and action to make San Diego Unified do the right thing, but at least they’re getting to that point,” McKeeman said. She added that Let Them Breathe sent a settlement demand to the district two weeks ago.

The district’s ability to keep students safe at in-person school this year without a vaccination mandate proves it doesn’t need one, McKeeman said. She also noted that if the mandate had been implemented this year, it would have applied only to a fraction of San Diego Unified students, and most students would have been allowed to remain unvaccinated.

“These mandates are not necessary for students at this point,” McKeeman said.

Paul Jonna, the attorney representing a student plaintiff in a different lawsuit that objects to San Diego Unified’s vaccination mandate because it does not allow religious exemptions for students, said he believes his client’s legal efforts pressured the district to postpone the mandate.

Jonna said in a statement that San Diego Unified “has no legal or factual way to justify imposing a mandate that offers no exemptions for students with sincere religious objections,” especially considering the district has acknowledged that COVID vaccines are not as effective anymore.

Regarding the district’s rules for triggering the mask mandate, McKeeman said it is “unacceptable” to require masking. She said children need normalcy and to be able to interact with teachers and peers without forced masking.

“Families are not going to stand for their students’ smiles being covered,” McKeeman said.

San Diego Unified held onto its indoor mask mandate longer than the state. The district kept its requirement until April 4, after spring break. The state lifted its school mask mandate after March 11. ◆