On Tuesday, a California appeals court system ruled that school districts are not allowed to enforce student COVID vaccine mandates, with the San Diego Unified School District being especially noted. The 4th District Court of Appeal agreed with a lower court’s ruling, which determined that only state lawmakers could require a vaccine for in-person school attendance. This leaves “no room for each of the over 1,000 individual school districts to impose a patchwork of additional vaccine mandates.”
In September 2021, district officials adopted a “Vaccination Roadmap” that would require students 16 or older to get a COVID vaccine if they wanted to attend in-person classes, enroll in sports, or participate in other extracurricular activities. In October 2021, the group Let Them Choose legally challenged the district’s mandate.
The court compared the district’s “roadmap” to offering students a choice between two unattractive options, saying that it does not actually mandate students to be vaccinated against COVID but rather gives them a less preferable choice of either being vaccinated or enrolling in independent study.
“We doubt that students and their parents perceive a real choice,” the court filing reads. “For some, independent study would likely be a step backwards.”
Lee Andelin, attorney for Let Them Choose, told the Los Angeles Times that the court’s ruling is a “great win for children and the rule of law.” The decision guarantees that state-wide policies will be equitably enforced. “The published opinion applies to all California school districts and sets important precedent to protect access to education,” Andelin said.
Dean White, a lawyer based in Washington who has experience with several cases related to COVID mandates, says that the district could have avoided the issue if it only allowed religious and personal belief exemptions.
“A lot of parents still would have not liked the mandate itself, but it would have given many a reasonable way out,” White said. “Instead, the district backed them into a corner and didn’t even hear them out on it before putting in that mandate.”
Although White argues that children’s health and safety are paramount, she believes that religious beliefs should also be respected. She cites that students have the right to individually pray or wear religious symbols like the cross, star of David, or 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,” White added. “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.”
Upon examining the appeals court ruling, Mike Murad, San Diego Unified spokesperson told the L.A. Times that the district is still deciding on its next steps.