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San Diego Unified School board votes to require vaccinations for eligible students and staff

On Wednesday, Board President Richard Barrera said it will be pushing for a statewide vaccine mandate in Sacramento.

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Unified Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with plans to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all eligible students ages 16 and older and district employees. 

All those eligible will be required to have received their second vaccine shot by Dec. 20.

On Wednesday, the district held a news conference at San Diego High School.

According to Richard Barrera, Board President for San Diego Unified School District, the only exemptions that will qualify are medical exemptions. 

"We will not allow religious or personal exemptions and that's consistent with state law about existing vaccines," Barrera said. "These are health and safety issues. We're applying that same logic to the COVID vaccine."

Students who don't meet the December vaccine deadline will be required to enroll in the district's online program and will not be allowed on campus. Barrera said that program is already up and running and there are currently 1,700 students taking part in it for various reasons.

Staff members who choose not to get vaccinated could face termination.

"What we think is happening now is momentum is building for a statewide mandate, which we also think is the right thing to do," said Barrera.

News 8 reached out to the State of California for comment.

"It is certainly one of the conversations we are having," said Dr. Erica Pan, state epidemiologist for California. "It is very important to us, as a state, to have successful schools and to have a safe school environment. Again- many conversations are happening."

Sharon McKeeman of the group, "Let them Breathe," told News 8 Wednesday they will be going forward with a lawsuit against the district regarding the vaccine mandate.

San Diego Unified has about 120,000 students.

The San Diego Unified Board's decision came amid controversy and parents on both sides were given the opportunity to speak during Tuesday's meeting held on Zoom. 

One parent called the board's decision "an abuse of power."

"You guys work for us and we do not consent!" said Mari Magstadt. "We do not know the long-term effects of this vaccine and I will not risk my children's health."

"Have you really thought, what if it causes just one child to develop myocarditis or any other life-threatening side effect?" asked mother Heather Jacobs-Cates.

"Every child and I mean every single child, has the right to a free and equal education," said teacher and parent Kathleen Mastro. "And offering virtual school  to unvaccinated kids is not an equal education."

WATCH: SDUSD Board president addresses people who are unhappy with new vaccine mandate

Leading up to Tuesday's virtual meeting, hundreds of opponents to a vaccine mandate demonstrated in front of school board headquarters.

"It is against the Constitution," said demonstrator and parent Kelsey Gee. "It's against parental rights! We have the right to choose what goes into our body."

"Parents need to be able to make their own personal medical decisions with their kids, especially for this vaccine that is very new," said McKeeman.

A number of parents also spoke out in favor of the vaccine mandate.

"Vaccine requirements have been commonplace for decades," said father and physician Dr. Kyle Edmonds. "And it is evidence-based in light of the COVID-19 pandemic which has maimed and killed so many across the world, including children."

"We need to keep students and their families and our staff alive and healthy," added teacher and parent Jena Workman.

With the plan passing, the district joins school districts in Los Angeles and Oakland which have already implemented vaccine mandates.

The first recommendation passed includes a mandate that all school employees, partners, contractors and other adults that work in direct contact with students and employees on school properties be fully vaccinated before December 20, 2021.

The second accepted recommendation is a Vaccination Roadmap, "a staggered approach to have all eligible students vaccinated against COVID-19, as a condition of attending in-person learning." The specific timeline for age groups will be aligned with full FDA approval. 

According to an email sent out by the district to families, "about 65% of all eligible students and 80% of eligible employees are already at least partially vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, according to the San Diego County Immunization Registry."

The president of the school board said prior to the vote he heard both sides of the debate on whether or not to implement a vaccine mandate. On the eve of the vote, he said the board would do what they believe is safest for the students and staff members.

“How do we keep our students and our staff safe? And by the way, how do we keep our students and staff at school? It’s just not a good situation to have the instability of having to send people home to quarantine,” said Barrera.

Under the plan, the district will still require mandatory testing for all unvaccinated students until their age group receives full FDA approval.

Los Angeles Unified has about 600,000 students and is the largest public school district in California. San Diego Unified has about 120,000 students.

WATCH: San Diego Unified leaders explain why they enacted vaccine mandate