What you need to know about San Diego Unified’s vaccine mandate

 A vaccine being extracted from a bottle
RN Connie Garcia extracts a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine which will be administered to a Texas Tech University Health Science Center student at Texas Tech University Health Science Center’s Academic Building Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, in Odessa, Texas. (Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP)

Mandate will immediately affect 6,300 students, 16 and older, who are not fully vaccinated


Several thousand San Diego Unified students, age 16 and older, will soon have to get a COVID vaccine or else be barred from in-person learning.

The San Diego Unified School Board approved a vaccine mandate for all staff and eligible students at its Tuesday board meeting. District leaders said it’s needed for several reasons: it will help reduce the spread of COVID in and out of schools, it will help keep students in school by minimizing how often students have to quarantine at home, and it will help increase herd immunity in San Diego.

“We understand the complexity of the decision we made, but we as a board went forward unanimously with six votes in support because we follow the science and we know what the right thing to do is,” said Zachary Patterson, a student who is a school board trustee, at a press conference Wednesday.

Here are answers to common parent questions about the new vaccine mandate.

Is the COVID vaccine safe?

The Food and Drug Administration approved the COVID vaccine because its benefits in reducing the chances of getting sick from COVID exceed the potential risks, experts said.

Of about 392 million vaccine doses administered to 214 million Americans so far, 0.01 percent may have resulted in serious side effects, according to reports in the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System website. Experts caution that not all those adverse events reported on VAERS were caused by the vaccine, and VAERS relies on self-reported data and so may be incomplete.

Dr. Howard Taras, San Diego Unified’s consulting physician, said people shouldn’t just look at a handful of medical studies about a vaccine’s safety. He added that it’s the FDA’s job to review all the research data and literature about a vaccine.

“Very few people have the time and energy to go through all the pro and con arguments, and that is why we have the FDA and the advisory committees to the FDA,” Taras said.

“When I say I’m pro getting as many students vaccinated as possible if there’s FDA approval, it’s because I believe in that process, an unbiased, objective process that can either ... approve or not approve a vaccine.”

Who at San Diego Unified has to be fully vaccinated, and by when?

All students age 16 and older must be fully vaccinated — meaning they must have received both shots — by Dec. 20. Also all adults who work directly with students, including district staff, contractors, and nonprofit partners, as well as district employees who work on district property, will have to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 20.

Why do only 16-year-olds and older students have to comply?

San Diego Unified’s vaccine mandate is tied to full approval of the vaccine by the FDA.

The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine has received full approval for people age 16 and older, so far. The vaccine is authorized by the FDA for emergency use for people 12 and older.

Once the FDA fully approves the vaccine for younger age groups, those students will have to get vaccinated. In the meantime, all those students will be required to test regularly for COVID.

What happens if students or staff don’t get fully vaccinated by Dec. 20?

Age-eligible students who don’t comply will be barred from in-person learning and will be required to learn from home via the district’s online academy. They also will be barred from extracurricular activities.

The district said it will discipline employees — including but not limited to termination — who don’t comply with the vaccination rule.

San Diego Unified’s teachers union had not taken a position on the vaccine mandate as of Tuesday. But union President Kisha Borden said courts and the district’s attorneys have made it clear that the law allows San Diego Unified, like other employers, to require staff to be vaccinated against COVID.

How many people in San Diego Unified will need to be vaccinated?

The district enrolls about 14,360 students who are 16 and 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. That’s out of about 99,000 total students attending school in person.

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

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, San Diego Unified already required staff to either be fully vaccinated or test weekly for COVID.

Will there be exceptions to the mandate?

Students and staff may be given medical exemptions from the mandate on a case-by-case basis.

The mandate allows for “conditional enrollment” of students in certain disadvantaged groups, including homeless students, foster youth, migrant students, military students and students with disabilities.

However, that doesn’t mean those students are exempted from the mandate. Those students may have an extra 30-day window to comply with the mandate, because their student records may be more difficult to access, said San Diego Unified School Board President Richard Barrera.

Students with disabilities may also qualify for conditional enrollment based on their medical needs.

Can I get a “personal belief” exemption from the vaccine mandate?

San Diego Unified students will not be allowed to opt out of the mandate for personal beliefs.

A 2015 state law banned personal belief exemptions from school vaccines that were required by the state at the time, but it allowed for personal belief exemptions from future school vaccines mandated by the state. The COVID vaccine is not yet mandated by the state.

San Diego Unified is not allowing personal belief exemptions, to follow the logic of that law, Barrera said.

“This is a health and safety issue, and we know from states that allow these sort of personal belief (exemptions), that creates kind of a loophole that means large numbers people don’t, in the end, get vaccinated,” he said.

San Diego Unified staff, however, will have the chance to apply for religious exemptions, Barrera said. That’s because federal law requires employers to offer religious exemptions, he said.

Which other school districts mandate COVID vaccines?

San Diego Unified joined a small but growing number of California districts that are mandating COVID vaccines, including Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified and Culver City Unified.

County school officials said San Diego Unified is the first San Diego County district they have seen approve a student vaccine mandate.

California health officials are considering a statewide school COVID vaccine mandate, officials said last week. Barrera said he hopes San Diego Unified and the other districts that approved mandates will create enough momentum to convince the state to implement it statewide.