San Diego Unified’s student vaccine mandate is delayed, again, to next school year

Gabe Calarco Rubio, 15, receives a vaccine booster shot at Crawford High School in El Cerrito on January 12.
Gabe Calarco Rubio, 15, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine booster shot on the UC San Diego Health Mobile Vaccine Clinic at Crawford High School in El Cerrito on January 12, 2022.
(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mandate was postponed for logistical reasons and will kick in for students 16 and up starting Aug. 29


San Diego Unified now says students won’t have to get vaccinated against COVID-19 until August, as a legal challenge to its student vaccine mandate remains under appeal.

The San Diego Unified School Board Tuesday approved a new timeline for its student vaccine requirement.

Students age 16 and older will now have to show proof of their first vaccine dose by Sept. 6 and proof of their second dose by Oct. 4 to attend school in person. Those students will have to get vaccinated earlier if they want to participate in summer programs and fall extracurriculars, including sports.

Student Trustee Zachary Patterson was the only board member to vote no; he said the student mandate should be implemented now, not later.

The board initially voted last September to require the COVID vaccine for staff and students age 16 and older by last December. Unvaccinated students in that age range would have been forced to learn from home starting with the second semester, which began last month.

But the district’s student mandate was struck down by a county judge in December, who said only the state has the authority to make school vaccine requirements. San Diego Unified appealed the ruling.

Earlier this month, a state appeals court granted a stay to the judge’s December ruling, allowing the student vaccine mandate to continue while the appeal is pending.

Even though the district can legally continue with its student mandate, it is postponing the implementation to next school year because of the logistical difficulties in enforcing a mandate in the middle of a school year, said Board Trustee Richard Barrera. The legal challenge to the mandate threw off the district’s original timeline that was aligned to the start of the second semester, which would have made it easier to implement, he said.

Because of the delay, San Diego Unified’s student vaccine mandate may end up coming after a statewide student vaccine mandate is implemented. State leaders have said they plan to require students age 12 and older to get vaccinated as soon as July, but only if the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the vaccine for children age 12 to 15; the vaccine is currently fully approved for people 16 and older.

There is one key difference between the state’s student vaccine plan and San Diego Unified’s: San Diego Unified says it will not grant students exemptions based on personal beliefs.

Sharon McKeeman, leader of Let Them Choose, the organization that sued San Diego Unified over its student vaccine mandate, said she believes the district’s appeal of the judge’s ruling will be unsuccessful.

“It’s unwise that they are using taxpayer dollars to fight Judge Meyer’s legal decision but they have done one thing right which is to rethink their agenda to push through this unlawful mandate,” McKeeman said in a statement.

As of Feb. 13, about 79 percent of San Diego Unified students age 16 and older were fully vaccinated. That number is virtually unchanged from December, the district’s original deadline for students to get vaccinated.

About two dozen people gave public comments Tuesday night during the board’s discussion of the vaccine mandate, but virtually none of them discussed the vaccine plan. All the comments were about whether masks should continue to be required in school.

California still requires students and staff to wear masks indoors at K-12 schools. The state will announce an update on the policy Monday.

Meanwhile state officials and school leaders have come under fire from some families who want the student mask mandate to be tossed.

Most of the public commenters at San Diego Unified’s meeting criticized masks and called on the district to stop requiring them, saying they’re affecting children’s mental and social health.

“Every day my kids go to school, they see the American flag. It stands for the land of the free,” said Jenna Bavli. “But you are oppressing them; they are not free.”

There is no significant evidence in studies that show masks harm the development of most children, said Dr. Howard Taras, a UC San Diego pediatrician and San Diego Unified’s in-house physician.

“There may be certain individual children that this is true ... but they don’t come out in the data,” Taras said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We would have to learn how to find that very small minority of children. For the vast majority of children, it has not yet been proven that it is affecting their language or their emotional development.”

Some public speakers pleaded with the district to continue enforcing the mask mandate and other COVID safety measures, saying they have proven to work in reducing the spread of COVID. Some said that while COVID cases have declined, they are still elevated.

“Please don’t respond to a group of anti-science parents standing behind some odd freedom banner to get their objective through bullying,” said Erik Strahm, a parent at Scripps Ranch High. “Please continue what you’re doing.”

San Diego Unified has been among the state’s most vocal about supporting universal masking and vaccinations as ways to minimize COVID spread within schools.

“This board has taken action based on science,” school board member Michael McQuary said. “Other schools ... went down a different road; other schools did not require masking, and then they had infections, and then they had to close down. They went back and forth multiple times.”