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Judge rules against San Diego Unified’s COVID vaccine mandate. What does it mean for L.A.?

Parents protest masks in schools
Parents protest outside Vista Unified School District in San Diego County in July against a mask requirement for students.
(Kristian Carreon / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A San Diego County judge has struck down the student COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the San Diego school system, a ruling with potential implications elsewhere, including in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In a four-page decision, Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer concluded that California school systems did not have the authority under state law to establish their own vaccine mandates. His ruling applies only to San Diego Unified. In separate vaccine mandate litigation against L.A. Unified, an L.A. County judge recently appeared to be leaning in the other direction, siding with the right of the Los Angeles district to impose its own requirements.

Since the litigation was filed, L.A. Unified officials have postponed enforcement until next fall, citing their resolve to avoid a massive academic disruption on Jan. 10, when about 28,000 unvaccinated students would have been barred from campus and transferred into independent study. District officials insist their mandate is legal.

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In San Diego, the ruling allows thousands of unvaccinated students to remain in their current classes, avoiding an involuntary transfer to a district-run independent study program. The San Diego mandate was to have taken effect at the start of the second semester.

“Judge Meyer agreed with our legal arguments that school districts do not have authority to mandate vaccines, they cannot force students into distance learning, and personal belief exemptions for new vaccines are protected under California state law,” said Sharon McKeeman, founder of the groups Let Them Breathe and Let Them Choose, which has pursued litigation against vaccine mandates. “This decision ... shows that parents coming together in a grassroots movement to uphold our children’s rights is powerful and effective.”

The San Diego policy applied to students 16 and older — the age for which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has fully approved a COVID vaccine. The L.A. Unified mandate affected students 12 and older. Students ages 5 to 15 are eligible for a vaccine under a federal emergency-use authorization.

About 20% of San Diego Unified’s roughly 14,000 students age 16 and older had not gotten any dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Dec. 15, according to data previously provided to the San Diego Union-Tribune by the school district.

An attorney for San Diego Unified expressed disappointment.

“The judge concluded only the state can act regarding vaccinations, even though the law specifically allows and encourages local vaccination programs,” said Mark R. Bresee. “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.’”

The district is considering its options in response, said spokeswoman Maureen Magee.

The administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom has said that local districts have the legal right to impose a student mandate for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The effect of the ruling elsewhere remains to be seen; only a handful of districts approved mandates — with the rest holding back because of concerns including litigation and compliance.

In San Diego County, Sweetwater Union High School District approved a COVID-19 vaccine mandate that is scheduled to take effect at the start of next school year. In L.A. County, a deadline already has passed for students in Culver City Unified — with officials taking no immediate action against students not in compliance.

In his ruling, Judge Meyer noted that the Legislature has stipulated mandates for 10 vaccines, including those for smallpox, polio and tuberculosis — and that the state public health department has a process for adding vaccines to that list.

On Oct. 1, Newsom announced that state health officials would begin the process to require a COVID-19 vaccine for children 12 and older. But it would not take effect until the semester after the FDA fully approved a vaccine for children in that age range. The state mandate would include both a medical and a personal-belief exemption — unless the Legislature acted to eliminate the exemption for personal beliefs.

Meyer built his argument on state authority in this arena.

“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] 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.

Neither the San Diego Unified nor L.A. Unified student mandates include an exemption for personal or religious belief.

Meyer also wrote that state law requires independent study to be voluntary — and a forced transfer into such a program violates state law.

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 the L.A. cases, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Michael Beckloff appeared sympathetic to that argument. On Dec. 13, Beckloff denied a request for an immediate injunction against the L.A. Unified mandate.

Beckloff suggested that state authority applied only to the rules for admitting students to a school system. The L.A. Unified resolution approving the mandate, he noted, was not denying enrollment.

“Instead, the resolution instructs on the method of instruction for certain students — how educational services are delivered — and who may be physically present on a[n] LAUSD campus,” Beckloff wrote. “Each student will receive legally required instruction. The resolution does not deny a public education or education services to any students.”

A spokeswoman for L.A. Unified said the district’s legal department is reviewing the San Diego ruling.

McKeeman said her group hoped to build on its victory in San Diego.

“On Jan. 7 our attorneys will be arguing these same legal arguments in the case against LAUSD,” she said. “We are moving forward with litigation against other districts if they do not immediately drop their mandate.”

The San Diego judge’s ruling did not speak to the district’s vaccination mandate for employees. About 15% of the district’s 14,000 staff had not complied with the district’s mandate as of Dec. 15, according to the school district.

L.A. Unified recently fired nearly 500 unvaccinated employees who did not receive an exemption.

Times staff writer Blume reported from Los Angeles. Taketa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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