Judge rules against San Diego Unified’s COVID-19 student vaccine mandate

At San Diego Unified School District on Sept. 28, 20121, people protested vaccine mandates.
Lisa McClain (holding white poster) and Natalia Briggs (holding flag) were among the large crowd that came out on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021 to object to the possibility of the San Diego Unified School District making COVID vaccines mandatory for staff and students 12 and up.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Judge said it’s within the purview of the state Legislature, not school districts, to mandate a vaccine for school attendance.


A judge struck down San Diego Unified School District’s COVID-19 student vaccination mandate Monday, saying that the mandate conflicts with state law.

The ruling effectively saves thousands of unvaccinated students from being kicked out of in-person school. San Diego Unified’s mandate would have forced students 16 and older to learn remotely via independent study starting Jan. 24 if they did not get both doses of the COVID vaccine by Monday.

For the record:

4:39 p.m. Dec. 20, 2021This story was updated to clarify that the ruling only strikes down San Diego Unified’s student vaccine mandate, not its mandate for staff. It was also updated to reflect that smallpox and tuberculosis are not required school vaccines.

About 20 percent of San Diego Unified’s roughly 14,000 students ages 16 and older have not gotten any dose of the vaccine as of Dec. 15, according to data previously provided by the school district.

San Diego Unified still has a COVID vaccination mandate for staff, which is not affected by Monday’s 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 district’s mandate and who do not qualify for a medical or religious exemption will be terminated, the district has said.

The court’s ruling, by San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer, immediately affects only San Diego Unified. But the ruling could have influence in challenges to COVID vaccine mandates that have been adopted by a handful of other California school districts.

In addition to San Diego Unified, Sweetwater Union High School District approved a COVID-19 vaccine mandate that will go into effect at the start of next school year, in July 2022, for students. Sweetwater staff have to get their first dose by Feb. 1. The district will allow for religious and medical exemptions.

Mark Bresee, an attorney who represents San Diego Unified in cases challenging the district’s vaccine mandate, 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 said in the ruling Monday that it is within the purview of the state Legislature, not school districts, to mandate a vaccine for school attendance.

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

The state 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.

State public health officials will eventually require the COVID-19 vaccine for in-person school attendance, but a deadline has not been set yet because the state mandate is tied to full approval of the vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration.

The vaccine has been fully approved for youth ages 16 and older, and it has emergency use authorization for children ages 5 to 15. The state mandate won’t kick in for any students until the vaccine is fully approved at least for children 12 and older.

When the state mandate goes into effect, the state will allow students to request personal belief exemptions. Unlike the state, San Diego Unified has said it would not allow personal belief or religious exemptions to its mandate for students.

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

The group has argued that San Diego Unified lacks the authority to mandate a vaccine on its own, and such mandates violate students’ right to an in-person education.

Sharon McKeeman, a Carlsbad parent who founded Let Them Breathe, said the group is thrilled about Monday’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 argued that the district’s mandate was 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 the district have argued that state law gives school districts broad local authority and that school districts are charged by the state constitution to keep students safe. The attorneys also argued that the state’s health and safety code does not bar school districts from making their own local vaccine requirements, because the district’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement doesn’t prevent students from complying with the 10 state law vaccine requirements.

Let Them Breathe has also said that personal belief exemptions must be allowed for any school vaccine. San Diego Unified has refused to grant personal belief or religious exemptions to students because families could abuse that exemption as a loophole to not get vaccinated, officials said. But the district allows religious exemptions for staff because it is required to do so under federal 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 COVID. Let Them Breathe parents also doubt the safety of the vaccine, even though serious side effects from the vaccine 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.