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California Court of Appeal Affirms Ruling that School District May Not Require COVID-19 Vaccine for Students
On November 22, 2022, a California Court of Appeal affirmed that state law prohibited the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) from mandating student COVID-19 vaccinations. The case has statewide implications for public schools and may affect private schools as well.
SDUSD adopted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students in September 2021. It required vaccination of students 16 and older in order to attend school in person and to participate in extracurricular activities. SDUSD involuntarily placed unvaccinated students on independent study.
An organization called Let Them Choose, and separately a student enrolled in the District, brought suit. They asserted that SDUSD lacked the authority to require students to receive COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of attending school because state law “occupied the field.” That is, state law set out the only mandatory vaccinations required for admission and preempted additional vaccinations. (Health and Safety Code section 120335). Absent the Legislature adding a COVID-19 vaccination to the list of mandatory student vaccinations, or the State Department of Public Health exercising its authority to add a new vaccination, a COVID-19 vaccine could not be required. A lower court agreed and SDUSD appealed.
The court first considered the statutory structure requiring mandatory vaccinations for attendance in California schools. Health and Safety Code section 120335 states in part:
The governing authority shall not unconditionally admit any person as a pupil of any private or public elementary or secondary school, child care center, day nursery, nursery school, family day care home, or development center, unless, prior to his or her first admission to that institution, he or she has been fully immunized.
The statute then lists 10 required vaccinations. COVID-19 is not one of them.
The court noted that in 2015, when considering whether to ban the personal beliefs exemption for student vaccinations, the Legislature deliberated whether mandatory vaccinations should be determined at a local level or on a statewide basis. It decided to impose a statewide standard. As a result, any position that expanded or contracted the statewide vaccination requirement would be invalid. The court explained that students who have received the mandatory vaccinations set out by statute “are entitled to attend California schools, and the ‘governing authority’ is not permitted to add its own vaccination mandates.”
The court also reviewed the State Department of Public Health regulation interpreting the mandatory vaccination statutes. That regulation states in part: “A school or pre-kindergarten facility shall unconditionally admit or allow continued attendance to any pupil age 18 months or older whose parent or guardian has provided documentation” of each immunization required for their age or grade. (17 CFR section 6025). The court determined that this regulation, like the related statute, prohibited a deviation from the immunizations set out by the Legislature.
SDUSD could not, therefore, require students who met the statutory vaccination requirements to be vaccinated for COVID-19 as a condition of attending school in person and participating in extracurricular activities.
While the court’s holding was specific to SDUSD’s ability to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for students, this decision may be relevant to private schools. The statutes and regulation considered in the court’s opinion are applicable to private schools. However, the terms of enrollment – which are by statute for public schools and by contract for private schools – may result in a different conclusion. Similarly, a court may reach a different decision if it were considering a case arising from a religious school, which has additional grounds to restrict student applicants. In light of the court’s decision, all California private schools may want to reassess their student COVID-19 policies.
Note: This case is limited to COVID-19 vaccination requirements for students. The ability of employers, including private schools, to implement COVID-19 vaccination requirements for employees is covered by separate federal and state guidance.
 The Legislature also removed the personal beliefs exemption from the mandatory vaccination requirements.