Students from Sonora High School and parents of students at other schools took part in protests Monday against California's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for schoolchildren.

Some students walked to downtown Sonora to make sure they were seen and heard. A group of parents and grandparents went to Courthouse Square. And some students gathered in the stands at Dunlavy Field at Sonora High. 

Many parents kept their students home from school Monday to take part in the planned statewide protest.

Several school districts that could be reached Monday afternoon reported higher than average absences for the day, ranging from slightly under to slightly over about one-third of their respective student populations.

In downtown Sonora, students Sam King, 14, Piper Bryan, 16, Madison Bramblett, 16, and Colten Anderson, 14, came from Sonora High to display their signs and share their feeling about the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for schools.

“I want my school to hear this, and my community too,” Bramblett said on South Green Street before 11 a.m. “They’re trying to force us to get the vaccine to attend school. But that’s our choice. It’s our bodies, our choice.”

“And we want freedom of speech, too,” Bryan said.

King added, “We have permission from our parents. We know they have something set up at campus for flex period. But only people at school will see that. So we’re off campus now so people in the community can see we’re protesting.”

On campus at Sonora High School, 16-year-old senior Om Patel said he heard “the protest is don’t come to school.” He said he forgot about it and was leaving campus at his normal release time. 

Patel said he did not want to say whether he supports or opposes mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for students.

Back at Courthouse Square, parent Corey Watson came with her daughter, Claire, 6, both of Sonora, and held a hand-drawn sign stating “No Forced Vax We Are Not Lab Rats” while some motorists on Washington Street honked in support.

Corey Watson said she is the parent of two other children who go to Soulsbyville Elementary School, and she is now homeschooling Claire because she does not believe in forced vaccines and masks that are recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She said she opposes COVID-19 vaccines and masks in part because she believes masks can make people sick.

“I just want the truth,” Claire’s grandmother, Kathleen Wolf, also a resident of Sonora, said at Courthouse Square. “The forced mandate for vaccines is against our constitutional rights. I have 14 grandchildren, 10 in Tuolumne County.”

Kim Scheu, of Groveland, protested on Washington Street across from Courthouse Square. Scheu said she wants parents to have a choice on whether their children must be vaccinated or not.

Ed Pelfrey, superintendent of the Sonora Union High School District, said just before noon on the Sonora High campus that students would be allowed to gather in the stands at Dunlavy Field during their flex hour and the following lunch period. 

Pelfrey said the school would provide a microphone so students on the field could amplify what they want to say.

“We’re trying to be respectful of the diversity of opinions,” he said.

Pelfrey requested news media remain across the football field from the stands, where fewer than three dozen students congregated among otherwise empty rows and rows of bleachers. 

No students used a microphone or any other public address system during the flex period. The students walked away from the field at the end of their flex period, accompanied by their principal, Karen Sells. No students took to the bleachers during the following lunch period, which ended about 1:15 p.m.

Pelfrey’s office shared a statement sent to parents and guardians of Sonora High School students before the planned protest Monday.

“If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is the importance of our schools as a place of learning and support for our students and families,” the statement signed by Sells said. “We understand that families and students may have strong emotions and questions about COVID-19 safety measures, including vaccine and testing requirements.”

Keeping children home from  school to protest a COVID-19 vaccine requirement announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom would only result in lost learning time for Sonora High students, Sells said in the statement.

“Our school funding will not be impacted by absences,” she said. “But our children will be. Showing up for school has a huge impact on a student’s academic success.”

Sonora Union High School District has no control over the proposed mandate, which would treat the COVID-19 vaccine similarly to 10 vaccines on the list already required by California law for students attending K-12 schools, Sells said.

The mandate does not apply until COVID-19 vaccines are given full authorization by the U.S.  Food and Drug Administration, which is expected for students ages 12 to 17 by September 2022. Exemptions for both medical reasons and personal belief would be available, Sells said, unless the state Legislature votes otherwise.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.