The San Diego Unified School District board of directors voted May 24 to delay the COVID-19 immunization mandate for students a second time, at least until July 2023.
The district also announced a recently passed plan that would trigger a temporary resumption of its indoor mask mandate if COVID cases or student illness rates increase.
The district is following the lead of state leaders and other school districts, including Sweetwater Union High and Los Angeles Unified, who have pushed back their COVID immunization mandates for students until next summer due to a delay in full federal approval of a vaccine for children under 16 and evidence declining effectiveness of vaccines against coronavirus variants.
dr Howard Taras, a UC San Diego pediatrician who has advised San Diego Unified on COVID matters, said at the May 24 board meeting that the effectiveness of the two-dose COVID vaccines in preventing reinfection was months after receiving the shots originally decreased by 90 percent to 58 percent for the Delta variant and 35 percent for the Omicron variant.
“So if a big part of the momentum for a vaccination mandate was to bring down the number of children who are absent from school, that has eased off a bit,” Taras said.
And after several months of San Diego Unified promoting the COVID vaccine, immunization coverage for students ages 16 and older has settled at 80 percent.
“The likelihood of this having a negative impact is questionable,” Taras said.
COVID vaccination rates are lower for San Diego Unified’s younger students. About 67 percent of students ages 12 to 15 and 42 percent of students ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated, according to the district. Overall, 56 percent of students aged 5 and over are fully vaccinated.
Zachary Patterson, the school board’s student trustee, abstained from the board’s vote on the mandate delay, saying he found it ironic that the district was deferring its mandate after all the effort it had put into it.
The move is intended to align the district with the state’s mandate and schedule, San Diego Unified Executive Director of Nursing Susan Barndollar said at the meeting.
Barndollar said the county’s coronavirus test positivity rate has been significantly lower than the county rate throughout the school year and there is little evidence of significant COVID transmission at school.
Meanwhile, instead of requiring student vaccinations, the district plans to step up other COVID mitigation measures as the disease rises.
These include the temporary reintroduction of the indoor mask mandate if certain conditions are met.
According to district guidelines, a San Diego unified school would be required to require indoor masks for at least 14 days if there have been at least three classroom outbreaks at the school in the past 14 days and if more than 5 percent of the school’s students and staff have done so have COVID. A school would also need to require masks if at least 10 percent of its students are sick every day for three consecutive days.
San Diego Unified will resume a district-wide mask mandate if high levels of COVID spread are detected in San Diego County, per guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The district says it will also continue other mitigation measures, including offering coronavirus testing, using improved air filtration systems and promoting vaccinations.
San Diego Unified’s student immunization mandate was originally passed in September and would have required students ages 16 and older to be fully vaccinated by December last year. But the measure was struck down by a judge in late December, who said school districts are not allowed to implement their own vaccination mandates.
San Diego Unified appealed that ruling, and the court allowed the district to continue its mandate pending appeal. However, in February, the district postponed implementation of the mandate to the 2022-23 school year due to logistical difficulties in implementing a mid-year mandate.
Under this plan, the district would have implemented the mandate for students age 16 and older beginning June 21 for summer school, July 30 for students participating in fall extracurricular activities, and August 29 for all other students.
California had planned to make the COVID vaccine mandatory for students ages 12 and older by July this year, but that was pending the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approving the vaccine for children ages 12 and older, which hasn’t happened yet. The vaccine currently has emergency use approval for children ages 5 to 15.
Sharon McKeeman, founder of the Let Them Breathe organization, which is suing San Diego Unified over its student COVID vaccination mandate, said the recent delay was “a step in the right direction.”
“It’s unfortunate that it takes this legal pressure and action to get San Diego Unified to do the right thing, but at least they’re getting to this point,” McKeeman said. She added that Let Them Breathe sent a settlement request to the district two weeks ago.
The district’s ability to keep students safe in the in-person school with no vaccination requirement this year proves it doesn’t need one, McKeeman said. She also noted that if the mandate had been implemented this year, it would only apply to a fraction of San Diego Unified students and most students would be allowed to remain unvaccinated.
“These mandates are not required for students at this time,” McKeeman said.
Paul Jonna, the attorney representing a student plaintiff in another lawsuit protesting San Diego Unified’s vaccination mandate for not allowing religious student exemptions, said he believes his client’s legal efforts have pressured the district to postpone the mandate.
Jonna said in a statement that San Diego Unified “has no legal or constructive ability to justify imposing a mandate that does not provide exceptions for students with sincere religious objections,” especially considering the district has acknowledged that COVID -Vaccines are no longer as effective.
Regarding the district’s rules for triggering the mask mandate, McKeeman said it was “unacceptable” to require a mask. She said children need normality and the ability to interact with teachers and peers without forced masking.
“Families will not allow their students’ smiles to be covered up,” said McKeeman.
San Diego Unified has held on to its indoor mask mandate longer than the state. The district maintained its request until April 4 after spring break. The state lifted its school mask mandate after March 11. ◆