The state Supreme Court rejected a challenge Wednesday to a ruling that said school districts in California cannot require their students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 because only the state government can issue such a mandate.
While public health agencies have recommended the vaccinations for children as young as 6 months old, legislation calling for vaccine mandates in schools has stalled in Sacramento. Gov. Gavin Newsom initially proposed requiring students to be vaccinated as of last July but has dropped that plan. And courts have stopped local school districts from acting on their own.
Wednesday’s case involved the San Diego Unified School District, the state’s second-largest with more than 121,000 students. The district first proposed in September 2021 to require students 16 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend classes, sports and other in-person events. Its order would have allowed exemptions for medical reasons but not for religious or personal objections.
The district later said it would postpone its order until July 2023, but by then it was already being challenged in court. And in November, the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, the first appellate court to rule on the issue, said school districts had no authority to order vaccinations on their own.
“The Legislature has mandated that public health officials — not school authorities — determine the disease(s) for which vaccinations are required,” Justice Richard Dato said in a 3-0 ruling, upholding a Superior Court judge’s decision against the district.
The school district cited a state law that allows schools to “administer an immunizing agent to a pupil.” But the court said the law applies only to vaccines already authorized by the state.
By allowing only state health officials to require vaccines for other illnesses, Dato wrote, California law “expresses a directive that the vaccinations required for school attendance present a statewide issue subject to statewide criteria. … Local variations must give way to a uniform state standard.”
The district did not appeal, but two charter schools asked the state Supreme Court to “depublish” the ruling so it would not be binding on any other courts. They were joined by former state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who sponsored legislation last year that would have required children to be vaccinated in order to attend school. Pan, who has also worked as a pediatrician, dropped his bill when he could not gain majority support.
On Wednesday, the state’s high court said it had decided not to review the ruling and instead left it as a precedent binding on trial courts statewide.
Other school districts that have proposed vaccine mandates include Oakland and Los Angeles, which both planned them to take effect last year but backed off while facing legal challenges. The Piedmont Unified School District in the East Bay required students 12 and over to show proof of vaccinations by mid-November 2021, but withdrew its order two months later after a judge halted enforcement in response to an anti-vaccine group’s lawsuit.
The San Diego lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit Let Them Choose, an offshoot of the anti-mask group Let Them Breathe, which unsuccessfully challenged a separate order by Newsom requiring masks in California schools. That mandate took effect in June 2020 and was lifted by the governor last March, although some districts have maintained their own mask requirements.
California requires schoolchildren to be vaccinated against 10 communicable diseases, including measles, mumps, chicken pox, polio and rubella. As the appeals court noted, state law allows the state Department of Public Health to add to that list, but does not expressly authorize schools or other local agencies to do so.
In arguing for vaccine authority, San Diego school officials cited another state law that says a school “shall give diligent care to the health and physical development of pupils.” But the appeals court said the law does not refer to vaccines and instead allows schools to employ staff for such health-related tasks as checking students’ eyesight and hearing.
The case is Let Them Choose v. San Diego USD, S278233.