A California appeals court ruled against the San Diego Unified School District on Tuesday by affirming school districts lack the authority to impose student COVID vaccine mandates.
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 leaving “no room for each of the over 1,000 individual school districts to impose a patchwork of additional vaccine mandates.”
District officials adopted a “Vaccination Roadmap” in September 2021 that would have required a COVID vaccine for students 16 or older to attend in-person classes, enroll in sports, and engage in other extracurricular activities. However, the anti-mandate group Let Them Choose posed a legal challenge to the district in October 2021.
The court called the district’s so-called roadmap a strained argument that does not actually mandate students to be vaccinated against COVID but “rather gives them a choice to either do so or be enrolled in independent study,” adding the choice resembles “the school cafeteria offering a choice between Brussels sprouts or broccoli.”
“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.”
The ruling cited reports from California Department of Education officials who argue that independent study programs work for some students who typically have support from their parents or guardian, motivation, and a strong commitment to work independently.
Lee Andelin, attorney for plaintiff Let Them Choose, told the Los Angeles Times the court’s ruling makes 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,” Andelin said.
Dean White, a Washington-based lawyer who has been a part of several cases surrounding COVID mandates, to the California Globe that the district could have avoided the issue if only it 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.”
White argued although children’s health and safety are essential, religious beliefs are also important, citing students have the right to individually pray or wear religious symbols such as the cross, the star of David, or 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,” 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.”
Mike Murad, San Diego Unified spokesperson, told the L.A. Times the district is examining the appeals court ruling and “will consider its next steps.”