The district also announced a set of COVID conditions it recently adopted that will trigger a temporary resumption of its indoor mask mandate whenever there’s a surge in COVID cases or student sickness levels.
The school district is following the lead of state leaders and other school districts, including Sweetwater Union High and Los Angeles Unified, that have postponed their student COVID vaccine mandates to next summer amid delays in full federal approval of the vaccine for children under 16 years old and evidence of waning effectiveness of the vaccines against coronavirus variants.
Dr. Howard Taras, a UC San Diego pediatrician who has been advising San Diego Unified on COVID matters, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the effectiveness of the two-dose COVID vaccines in preventing re-infection months after getting the shots has declined from their original 90 percent to 58 percent after the Delta variant and 35 percent after the Omicron variant.
“So if a great deal of the impetus to have a vaccine mandate was to lower the number of kids who were missing school, that has somewhat waned,” Taras said.
And after several months of San Diego Unified School District promoting the COVID vaccine, its vaccination rate for students 16 and older has plateaued at 80 percent.
“The likelihood of making a dent in that is questionable,” Taras said.
COVID-19 vaccination rates are lower for San Diego Unified’s younger students: about 67 percent of students ages 12-15 and 42 percent of students ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated, according to the district. Overall, 56 percent of students age 5 and up are fully vaccinated.
School Board Student Trustee Zachary Patterson abstained from Tuesday’s vote, saying he thought it was ironic that the district was postponing its mandate after all the effort it had put into implementing it.
The district is postponing its mandate to align itself with the state’s mandate and timeline, said Susan Barndollar, San Diego Unified’s executive director of nursing, at Tuesday’s meeting.
Barndollar also said the district’s testing positivity rate has been significantly lower than the county rate throughout the school year, and there has been little evidence of significant in-school COVID transmission.
In the meantime, rather than requiring student vaccines, the district plans to ramp up other COVID mitigation measures whenever there’s a COVID surge.
That includes temporarily reinstating its indoor mask mandate when certain COVID conditions are met.
According to district guidelines, a San Diego Unified school would have to require masks indoors for at least 14 days when at least three classroom outbreaks have occurred at the school during the past 14 days and when more than 5 percent of the school’s students and staff have COVID. A school would also have to require masks when at least 10 percent of its students were out sick each day for three consecutive days.
San Diego Unified will resume a districtwide mask mandate when San Diego County is considered to have a high level of COVID spread, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
The district says it will also continue other mitigation measures, including offering COVID testing, using improved air filtration systems and promoting vaccinations.
San Diego Unified’s student vaccine mandate was originally adopted in September of last year and would have required students 16 and older to be fully vaccinated by last December. But the mandate was struck down by a judge in late December who said that school districts are not allowed to implement their own vaccine mandates.
San Diego Unified appealed that ruling, and the court allowed the district to continue with its mandate while the appeal is pending. Still, in February the district postponed implementation of the mandate to the 2022-2023 school year because of logistical difficulties in implementing a mandate mid-year.
Under that previous plan, the district would have implemented the mandate for students 16 and older starting June 21 of this year for summer school students, July 30 for students participating in fall extracurriculars and Aug. 29 for all other students.
California had planned to require the COVID vaccine for students age 12 and up by July 2022, but the mandate was contingent on the Food and Drug Administration fully approving the COVID vaccine for children 12 and up, which hasn’t happened yet. The vaccine currently has emergency use authorization for children ages 5-15.
Sharon McKeeman, founder of the organization Let Them Breathe, which sued San Diego Unified over its student vaccine mandate, said Tuesday’s delay of the mandate is “a step in the right direction.”
“It’s unfortunate that it takes this legal pressure and action to make San Diego Unified do the right thing, but at least they’re getting to that point,” said McKeeman, who added that Let Them Breathe sent a settlement demand to San Diego Unified two weeks ago.
McKeeman argued that the fact the district has been able to keep students safe at in-person school this year without a vaccine mandate proves it doesn’t need one. She also noted that if the mandate was implemented this year, it would have only applied to a fraction of San Diego Unified students and most students would have been allowed to remain unvaccinated.
“These mandates are not necessary for students at this point,” McKeeman said.
Paul Jonna, the attorney representing a student plaintiff in a different lawsuit that objects to San Diego Unified’s vaccine mandate because it does not allow students religious exemptions, said he believes his client’s legal efforts pressured the district to postpone the mandate.
Jonna said in a statement that San Diego Unified “has no legal or factual way to justify imposing a mandate that offers no exemptions for students with sincere religious objections,” considering that the district has acknowledged that COVID vaccines are not as effective anymore.
Regarding the district’s mask trigger rules, McKeeman said she thinks it is “unacceptable” to force masking. She said children need normalcy and need to be able to interact with teachers and peers without forced masking.
“Families are not going to stand for their students’ smiles being covered,” McKeeman said.
San Diego Unified held onto its indoor school mask mandate longer than the state. The district kept its mask mandate until April 4, after spring break, while the state lifted its school mask mandate after March 11.