An appeal by the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) to reverse a COVID-19 vaccination mandate that was previously ruled illegal by a lower court, was upheld on Tuesday in the Fourth District Court of Appeal, forcing the district to continue to scrap plans for a district-wide vaccination mandate.
The fight over the San Diego school’s mandatory vaccination plans dates back to September of 2021. That month, the SDUSD board voted unanimously to institute mandatory vaccinations for all district staff and students ages 5 and above, with the only exemptions allowed being medical related. The announcement polarized parents and staff, with supporters saying that the mandate was needed for health and safety reasons, and those opposed saying the mandate couldn’t happen because of the lack of religious and personal belief exemptions. Los Angeles and San Francisco school districts included the exemptions, leading San Diego parents to zero in on the SDUSD mandate.
The SDUSD soon faced several lawsuits, the most prominent from “Let Them Choose” and “Let Them Breathe.” As a result, the mandate was put on hold until December, when the lawsuit was finally heard in San Diego Superior Court. To the chagrin of the SDUSD, Judge John Mayer ruled that the mandate broke state law, halting it permanently days before the district’s first dose vaccination deadline. Specifically, Judge Meyer sided with the parent groups, noting that mandates without exemptions can only be ordered by the state legislature. Judge Meyer also said that the COVID-19 vaccine would not be added to the list of needed vaccinations without exemption due to the state also being the only one who could order such a thing.
“The San Diego Unified School District is disappointed that Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer concluded only the state can act regarding vaccinations, even though the law specifically allows and encourages local vaccination programs,” the SDUSD said after the ruling last December. “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 ruling was appealed less than 48 hours later by the district, with supporters continuing to cite health and safety reasons in favor. While disheartened by the appeal, those opposing the mandate noted that affirmation by an appellate court would make it even more binding.
“Let Them Choose is confident that we will prevail in an appellate court and we look forward to setting binding statewide precedent that protects students’ rights to in-person education,” said Let Them Choose last year. “Judge Meyers ruled in our favor on the clear legal issues that school districts do not have authority to mandate a patchwork of vaccines or contradict state law by rejecting personal belief exemptions and we do not expect the appellate court to come to a different conclusion. In the meantime there is a ruling in place against the SDUSD vaccine mandate and they cannot enforce it.”
“[We] look forward to setting binding precedent statewide. If we prevail in a appellate court that would be even more binding.”
SDUSD mandate appeal fails
For most of 2022, both sides waited until the Appellate court panel would hear the appeal, with the SDUSD having to delay their mandate date to July of 2023 as a result, and then only if it was reversed. However, that proved to be moot on Tuesday when the panel ruled against SDUSD, upholding the mandate ban and agreeing with Judge Meyer’s reasons last year.
“The district’s roadmap requires students to choose between a mandated COVID-19 vaccination and involuntary independent study, a choice the legislature does not permit the district to compel,” wrote the panel in their decision.
“Today the California Court of Appeal affirmed the Superior Court’s judgment in Let Them Breathe’s lawsuit against San Diego Unified holding that school districts do not have authority to impose their own vaccination requirements on top of the standard series,” Lee Andelin, attorney for the plaintiff’s, said on Tuesday. “This is a great win for children and the rule of law and ensures consistency statewide. The published opinion applies to all California school districts and sets important precedent to protect access to education.”
With the appellate case now marking a precedent for future mandates and their exemptions, many observers noted that school districts will now have to be very careful on what they do about exemptions in the future.
“This whole case could have been avoided if only the district allowed religious and personal belief exemptions,” added lawyer Dean White, a Washington-based lawyer who has been a part of several cases surrounding COVID-19 mandates, to the Globe on Wednesday. “A lot of parents still would have not liked the mandate itself, but it would have given many a reasonable way out. Instead, the district backed them into a corner and didn’t even hear them out on it before putting in that mandate.
“Health and safety is important, especially to kids, but religious beliefs are also important. Individually, students are allowed to pray, are allowed to wear a cross or star of David, are allowed to wear a hijab. But here, even if it went against your beliefs, they said you had to take a vaccine and go against your faith, or go to alternate methods. You can see why judges keep siding on these groups challenging school districts over this. And the San Diego case is huge and precedent-making.”
As of Wednesday, the SDUSD has not indicated if they plan to take the case to a higher court.