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San Diego Unified, state’s 2nd largest district, mandates vaccination for students, staff

A group protests against vaccine mandates outside the San Diego school district headquarters.
Hundreds of people protest against the vaccine mandate outside the San Diego Unified School District headquarters Tuesday before school board members voted to require school employees students 16 and older to be vaccinated.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The San Diego school district, the second-largest school system in the state, has ordered all staff and students ages 16 and older to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 20.

The unanimous school board vote Tuesday night makes San Diego at least the sixth school district in California to adopt student vaccines mandates in recent weeks: Oakland, Piedmont and Hayward in Northern California and Culver City in Los Angeles County. On Sept. 9, the Los Angeles Unified School District was the first large system in the nation to approve student vaccines.

San Diego’s mandate does not go as far as Los Angeles Unified’s, which requires vaccines for all students 12 and older.

The approval followed a rally involving several hundred people protesting the mandate in front of the San Diego Unified School District headquarters.

“Tonight we’re making a statement that we believe in the science, we believe in the process and that we are serious about this, that we want to protect children,” school board Vice President Sharon Whitehurst-Payne said during the meeting.

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The new San Diego Unified rules make full COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for students when the vaccine is fully approved for their age group by the Food and Drug Administration.

Currently the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is fully approved for people ages 16 and older. It has emergency authorization for children ages 12 to 15. Last week, the vaccine’s maker announced results that show its vaccine is also safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11, and the companies are pursuing emergency authorization approval for that age group.

Thousands of district employees who refuse COVID vaccinations could lose their jobs; tens of thousands of students could be shut out from school activities.

San Diego Unified students 16 or older now have to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 20 to attend school in person. Those who do not comply will be required to do remote learning, via independent study, according to the district’s plan. Students younger than 16 will be tested regularly for the coronavirus until a vaccine is fully approved for their age group.

The mandate also makes full vaccination against COVID-19 a requirement for employment with the district by Dec. 20. The district will be able to fire or otherwise discipline employees who don’t comply if they do not have a medical or personal belief exemption, the district said.

About 65% of San Diego Unified students 12 and older have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, the district said; 57% have been fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, about 81% of San Diego Unified employees have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 76% are fully vaccinated.

School vaccine mandates are not new. For example, California schoolchildren already must get vaccines for such diseases as chickenpox, polio, hepatitis B and others to enter kindergarten.

In its decision, San Diego Unified cited testimony from seven UC San Diego experts who support a mandate.

Alyssa Titus holds a sign at rally protesting COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Alyssa Titus, an educator, holds a sign at a rally protesting COVID-19 vaccines mandates for San Diego Unified staff and students.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A vaccine mandate will reduce the spread of the coronavirus among children, their schools and their families, and help protect children against multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a related serious condition, experts said.

“FDA approval comes with extensive safety checks and the risk/benefit ratio clearly favors vaccination over the risk of symptomatic COVID infections, multisystem inflammatory syndrome, and community spread,” said Kimberly Brouwer, infectious-disease epidemiologist at UC San Diego, as quoted in the district’s proposal.

Medical professionals, parents, teachers, students and others also spoke in favor of the mandate, saying that unvaccinated people are overwhelmingly more likely to get seriously sick from or to die from COVID-19, and that the disease can harm children.

“The FDA-approved vaccination is the best that human science has to offer. If you don’t trust it, you shouldn’t get medical care of any kind from humans trained in science,” said Mica Pollock, a San Diego High parent, during the meeting. “We’ve mandated other vaccinations for generations to protect children. Vaccination mandates aren’t new; it’s just public health.”

Parents, teachers and others opposed to the mandate said during the board meeting that they are worried about potential adverse effects from the vaccine. Several said they don’t think the vaccine is necessary because children have been less likely to get seriously sick or die from COVID-19, noting that no child younger than 10 has died from the virus in San Diego County, and two in the 10-19 age group have died since the pandemic began.

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L.A. City Council considers a stricter COVID-19 order requiring visitors to restaurants, gyms, malls, salons and elsewhere to be fully vaccinated.

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Florida was hailed as a model for battling the coronavirus, with many favorably comparing it with California. Then the Delta variant hit and Florida fell behind California in many key metrics, especially deaths.

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Union-Tribune staff writer Andrea Lopez-Villafana contributed to this story.


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