In summary

At least 40 California schools have tried to implement their own vaccine mandate ahead of the state mandate that will take effect next fall.

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As omicron rages throughout California, some schools have already added another layer of defense: At least 40 California districts are or soon will require vaccinations for staff or students, or both. 

Some of these policies are stricter than Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans to require vaccination for all K-12 staff and students before the next school year, according to a CalMatters investigation. While large districts like San Diego Unified and Los Angeles Unified have garnered national attention for their independent mandates, several dozen have gone largely unnoticed by state and national media.

Neither the California Department of Education nor any other agency is keeping track of all individual district policies. CalMatters contacted all 940 public school districts to create the first living database recording the state patchwork of COVID-19 vaccination requirements for schools. 

County education offices must follow local health guidelines, which the state Department of Public Health ultimately oversees, state education department information officer Scott Roark wrote in an email to CalMatters.

But public health officials aren’t tracking this information either. The California Department of Public Health “does not maintain official records about the actions of local school districts for which there is no formal requirement to report to the state,” the office of communications said in an email to CalMatters.

“I am surprised that there is no central body that regulates school districts,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a professor of pediatrics and of epidemiology at Stanford University. “This clearly isn’t good public health policy.” 

Information collected from over 630 school districts reveals that over 1 million students are already affected by some kind of mandate, independent of the upcoming statewide rule. Just about 300 districts’ administrators didn’t respond to several attempts to contact them; 10 refused to comment. 

Uneven vaccine mandates

The scope of the mandates varies: Some apply only to new employees, athletes or children attending overnight school trips. Others affect the entire school population.

The uneven requirements across districts are a product of legal concerns, minimal state guidance and local politics. 

“There is no way you can come up with an argument where a patchwork approach to anything is going to be helpful for public health,” Maldonado said. “Viruses don’t look at borders…You can have a massive outbreak triggered in a small district that can cross borders.”

Since October, K-12 staff statewide had the option to provide proof of vaccination or test weekly. Beginning next school year, both staff and eligible students must be vaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine has full federal approval for ages 16 and up, and emergency approval for ages 5-15.

Many mandates have gone into effect already, some as early as last August. Mandates in Cerritos, Culver City, and Dublin went into effect months ahead of San Diego and Los Angeles’ previously anticipated policy start dates. 

Some districts set separate timelines for different groups of students and staff. In Los Angeles and two other districts, athletes got their shots months before the rest of the student body. In Gilroy, new hires had to get vaccinated by Jan. 1, 2022, six months ahead of current employees. 

Vaccine mandate legality  

Whether individual mandates hold up in court seems to depend on the specifics of that district’s mandate and the presiding judge. 

Some mandates continue to be upheld, despite several legal challenges: A judge denied a temporary restraining order that would have suspended Los Angeles Unified’s student mandate in October in one of three active lawsuits against the district. Judges also denied two separate pleas to freeze San Diego Unified’s vaccine mandate in early December.

But on Jan. 10 San Diego County Superior Court Judge John Meyer ruled that San Diego Unified does not have the authority to levy such a mandate, especially without including a personal belief exemption. 

Let Them Choose, a parent group opposed to mandatory vaccine and mask mandates, filed one lawsuit, alleging the district lacks the authority to move ahead of the state.

“There is no way you can come up with an argument where a patchwork approach to anything is going to be helpful for public health.”

Yvonne Maldonado, professor of pediatrics and epidemiology, Stanford University

A 16-year-old student and her family also sued the district claiming that the mandate is discriminatory for not offering religious exemptions. Because the vaccine was tested on or developed with cell lines from abortions — a standard practice in vaccine development — the family claims getting the shots violates their faith.  

The district barred all requests for exemptions, except medical. This is stricter than the state’s plans, which will allow personal and religious exemptions.

“If you allow for a religious or personal belief exemption in the student vaccine mandate, you’ll simply have fewer students who are vaccinated,” board president Richard Barrera said. 

Stanford Law School professor Bill Koski said districts that don’t offer exemptions are more vulnerable to legal challenges, but California’s overall vaccine law is one of the nation’s strongest in withstanding legal challenges.

Generally, California vaccine mandates in K-12 education have been “upheld against legal challenges because public health has essentially trumped religious liberties,” he said. 

Local debate over vaccine mandates

Local vaccine mandates can only accomplish so much. While it might make sense to prioritize larger districts, Maldonado said, ultimately everyone needs to be vaccinated to mitigate virus transmission.

But in larger districts, enforcing the mandates has proven challenging. 

Roughly 34,000 Los Angeles Unified students were not in compliance with the district’s vaccine mandate as of Dec. 7.  Too late to reach full immunity by the semester’s start on Jan. 10, the students would have been barred from campus and transitioned to online learning. 

This —  and added pressure from Gov. Newsom urging the district to keep kids in the classroom — led the board to reconsider its timeline. Los Angeles Unified voted Dec. 14 to delay the vaccine mandate until next fall, citing an 87% vaccination rate among students. 

“Our constituents do not want any of the mandates.”

Micah Howser, Board clerk, Gold Trail Union Elementary

This is in stark contrast to the government’s original messaging. The state encouraged schools and public health officials to move ahead with local mandates, even referencing Los Angeles Unified directly back in October. 

Most smaller districts reported high compliance and minimal pushback.

At Campbell Union Elementary in Santa Clara County, only 2.5% of staff wasn’t vaccinated before the deadline and had to apply for religious or medical exemptions. 

Some districts that enforced mandates earlier in the fall are now adding new requirements. Santa Barbara Unified — which first mandated staff to get vaccinated in November — is now requiring staff with medical or religious exemptions to test twice weekly and wear N-95 masks.

Some — depending on the district, either parents, faculty, students, school boards, or a combination  — have advocated for mandates. However, legal fears have stalled progress. Pasadena Unified School District has been delaying its own vaccine requirements for four months citing legal concerns.

Others are vehemently opposed to any mandate. 

“Our constituents do not want any of the mandates,” Gold Trail Union Elementary Board Clerk Micah Howser said in an email. “I will fight the vaccine mandate, pull my kids out of school if it is upheld, and stay on the board to hold others accountable.” 

Even neutral districts are concerned about the ramifications of the upcoming statewide mandate. 

Lassen View Union Elementary will likely lose at least 10% of his student population by July, Superintendent Jerry Walker said in an email. 

More than 50 other administrators said that pushback to Newsom’s mandate deterred them from enforcing any independent policies. 

Despite skyrocketing COVID cases throughout California, uneven requirements and polarized stances still span the state. Many districts remain steadfast in their beliefs.

“Our community is healthy and thriving,” Howser said. “We are not afraid of COVID.”

Database methodology

We selected California’s 940 elementary, high school and unified school districts from the Department of Education’s public database. We emailed a standardized inquiry to district superintendents 3 times over the course of 4 weeks. In the case of no response, we emailed alternate district contacts such as district nurses, board members, chief business officers, assistant superintendents, and more. After contacting a district 5 times with no response, we denoted a district as “could not be reached”.

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Jennah Haque is a master’s student in Stanford’s Graduate Journalism program. She has previously interned at The Economist and Bloomberg News. She has a bachelor’s in Data Science from MIT, where...

Melissa Newcomb is a master’s student in Stanford’s Graduate Journalism program. She has previously interned at Voice of America and earned a bachelor’s in Communications and Media and Legal Studies...

Caroline Ghisolfi is a Data Reporter Intern at the Associated Press based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has freelanced for The San Francisco Chronicle and covered education, crime, local businesses...