L.A., San Diego school districts are sued over student vaccination mandate

California’s two largest school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — are targeted in lawsuits challenging their student COVID-19 vaccination mandates, alleging the vaccines are too new and that unvaccinated children face discrimination and the denial of their equal right to a public education.

Both school systems were ahead of the state in requiring student vaccines as a measure to make campuses safer and to limit spread of the coronavirus in the community — and their mandates are more comprehensive than the state requirement, which has yet to be codified into law.

In Los Angeles, an individual parent who is not named filed suit Friday. In San Diego, the parent group Let Them Breathe filed suit Monday. That group had previously filed pending litigation against the state’s student mask mandate.

The litigation against each district was prepared by Aanestad, Andelin & Corn, a law firm based in San Diego County. The two lawsuits use nearly identical language in challenging the legal basis for the mandates.

“Many parents want to see long-term studies of this new vaccine before they would consider getting their child vaccinated. Every student has a right to an in-person education under California law,” said Sharon McKeeman, the founder of Let Them Breathe, which has organized against student vaccine mandates under the name Let Them Choose. She called the mandates “unscientific and unlawful.”

Health experts broadly contend that the vaccines are safe and effective and that providing them to children has significant public health benefits. They also acknowledge that the balance of risks and benefits in children is not as clear-cut as it is for adults.

Both school districts require that all students 16 and older be fully immunized by the start of the spring semester. The COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech has been fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in that age group. Students who don’t comply must enroll in a form of independent study to remain in the school system.

L.A. Unified also extends the requirement to 12- to 15-year-olds, a group that can get the Pfizer vaccine through an FDA emergency use authorization. The agency has not granted full approval of any COVID-19 vaccine for this younger age group, and that may not happen by the time the requirement takes effect — which is one of issues raised in the complaint.

In addition, the L.A. district has an earlier restriction affecting students 12 and older in extracurricular activities. They are supposed to be immunized by Oct. 31. According to the district’s timetable, to continue participation uninterrupted, they would have needed to take their first of two shots by Oct. 3.

Both districts allow exemptions for medical necessity but not for personal or religious beliefs.

San Diego school board President Richard Barrera has said the district is not offering personal belief exemptions because families may end up abusing that loophole, resulting in low vaccination rates.

The lawsuits argue that the school systems lack the authority to mandate vaccines — calling it “within the sole province” of the state Legislature and state health department.

The state has not taken this position, and this week the L.A. Unified requirements were praised by Dr. Mark Ghaly, who heads the California Health and Human Services Agency.

“I commend leaders across the state for leaning in on getting more young people vaccinated and connecting a requirement to attend in-person education,” Ghaly said in a message recorded for the L.A. board of education meeting Tuesday. “We have a safe, effective and necessary tool to keep our schools moving forward.”

Separately, Gov. Gavin Newsom this month announced the start of a process to require COVID-19 vaccines statewide for all students, but this effort would include a personal belief exemption unless the Legislature acts to eliminate it.

The litigation argues that COVID-19 poses a “very low risk” to children, a view that’s not widely shared among public health officials. The suit also alleges that children rarely spread coronavirus infections, though many experts say that contention is either wrong or unproven.

Out of every 100,000 children, 8,035 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 during the pandemic, according to the latest figures from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Assn. The case rate has been increasing since July, reaching a peak that was higher than the one seen during the devastating winter surge.

The pediatricians group recommends vaccination for adolescents 12 and older.

The litigation, in three dozen pages of arguments, references research in support of its claims and decisions in other countries that run counter to the conclusions of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The mandates, according to the suit, unlawfully deny children their right to public education by relegating them to an inferior independent study program.

“Keeping healthy children out of the classroom is contrary to California law, is not necessary to reduce cases of COVID-19 in schools, and is not in the best interest of students, parents, or school districts,” the lawsuits state.

Both school systems approved their student vaccination mandates in September and also have one for employees.

The L.A. Unified employee mandate takes effect Monday, when unvaccinated employees will no longer be able to report to work on campus.

The district would not release information on how many employees had yet to comply.

During a presentation on the value of vaccines at the board of education meeting Tuesday, a senior district staffer said there were “contingency plans” in place, without elaboration. Board members did not ask questions or discuss the employee vaccine issue.

At that meeting, the district’s mandate won praise from a senior county health official, Dr. Robert Gilchick, who also addressed a common fear about the vaccine: that it could cause myocarditis, an inflammation of part of the heart muscle. Gilchick said that the risk was small and that virtually all cases were minor. He added that the risk of developing myocarditis was 16 times higher for those who get COVID-19 than for those who get the vaccine.

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