Teacher vaccination warrants are slow to reach U.S. classrooms
When the Clark County, Nevada, School Board began considering requiring its teachers and staff to receive the COVID vaccine earlier this month, the resistance was fierce.
At the board meeting, some opponents said the rule would amount to an attack on their freedom. Others regurgitated discredited medical claims about vaccine safety. Some teachers have sworn to quit rather than get the shot. “My doctor and I decide what to do with my body and medical decisions – not you, my employer,” said a district teacher. “We want our freedom.
Board members in the nation’s fifth largest district, where Las Vegas is located, held their ground, voting 5-1 in favor of politics. But the fight is actually far from over.
The council resolution did not put in place a mandate; it simply allowed the district officials to start negotiating one with the local unions. No agreement has been reached to date. Meanwhile, one in three staff members failed to provide proof of vaccination, officials said earlier this month.
The Clark County experience illustrates a larger reality: Despite an increase in the number of schools and states declaring vaccines mandatory, schools in the United States have been slow to impose such requirements on staff.
In some cases, negotiations are ongoing. In others, a test opt-out provides a significant loophole. Many do not impose any rules on vaccines. Even in the strictest districts, the schedule allows teachers to be in class for a month or two before they are fully immunized.
Few districts have yet started implementing the mandates either – and with districts grappling with staff shortages, it remains to be seen whether they will.
In many places, “parents think there is a mandate for vaccination, but it really isn’t,” said Lesley Lavery, a professor at Macalester College where she studies teacher unions. “We have to watch the fine print.”
Several states prohibit schools from mandating vaccines. But among 100 major U.S. school districts, about a third have staff immunization rules, according to a tracker kept by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and more are moving in that direction. Washington, DC on Monday announced a full immunization mandate for school personnel.
The CRPE figure includes districts like Clark County, which for now only requires weekly testing of unvaccinated staff. Philadelphia is also included, where the school district requires testing twice a week for those who are not vaccinated, compared to weekly testing for those who are. Staff won’t lose their jobs if they don’t get vaccinated, the district recently acknowledged.
Likewise, a number of states – including California and New Jersey – that have imposed putative vaccine mandates instead allow school staff to be tested regularly.
It’s an important distinction, says Susan Hassig, epidemiologist at Tulane University. Weekly tests just don’t offer as much protection as vaccination, she said, because a positive test result could come after someone has already infected others. “It’s not as good,” Hassig said.
The three largest districts in the country, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, do not allow alternative testing. (They allow medical and religious exemptions.) Even there, however, educators could be in school buildings for weeks without this protection.
While parents who wish to enter New York City school buildings must now show proof of at least one dose of the vaccine, teachers have until September 27 to receive their first injection and an additional 45 days to obtain their second. School staff in Los Angeles and Chicago have until Oct. 15 to be fully immunized.
In fact, it doesn’t appear that a large school district started this year with a full immunization mandate, although the vaccine was available from last spring and teachers often had early access to it. (One exception was the Success Academy, a large charter network in New York City, which required staff to be fully immunized before school started in August.)
Vaccines do not prevent all cases of COVID-19, but they have been shown to reduce the chances of contracting and spreading the virus.
A recent case study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted the risk to students when their teacher is unprotected. Unvaccinated teacher with symptoms of COVID in Marin County, Calif., Removed his mask to read aloud; soon half of the class was infected with COVID.
Cases of COVID in children are rarely severe, but they have become more and more prevalent and children may play a role in the spread of the virus within a community. Transmission of COVID can also disrupt in-person schooling: New York City recently closed a Manhattan school for students with severe disabilities after 16 staff contracted the virus after a staff orientation.
Rebecca Garcia, who has three children at Clark County schools, wants teachers to be vaccinated to minimize disruption from positive cases. “If this is a step to make sure we can have a more normal school environment, then it’s something I’m not going to argue with,” she said.
Polls show that while most of the public supports teacher immunization requirements, parents are more divided on the issue.
Teachers are also divided, forcing their unions to take a cautious line.
“I represent educators who are on both sides,” said Marie Neisess, president of the Clark County Education Association. “While we’re not against vaccines, we just want to make sure – now that it’s going to be mandatory – that we have the ability to negotiate on behalf of all educators. “
In New York, officials said unvaccinated staff without medical or religious exemptions will be put on unpaid leave. In Los Angeles, school officials also said unvaccinated staff could be made redundant. But in places where a large portion of staff do not want to be vaccinated, it can be difficult to follow through with this threat.
“Are you really going to lay off staff when many districts are have staff shortages? Said Bree Dusseault, who has followed district policies at CRPE.
A spokesperson for Clark County Schools, which still has several hundred unfilled teacher positions, did not respond to a request for comment.
Roxanne James, principal of a Clark County college, says she expects some of her staff to step down if a term is put in place. “There will be a loss at the start,” she said. “What we will do is we will plan for it, we will adapt to it.”
This could force her to get rid of classes specifically for students who are learning virtually, she admitted. Yet she supports the district’s decision to pursue a vaccination mandate.
“What hurts me right now is seeing children coming home sick,” she said.
It is not known exactly how much of the school staff is already vaccinated. An Education Week poll over the summer found that 87% of teachers said they had received the vaccine, but 11% said they had no plans to do so.
Staffing issues can be particularly acute in politically conservative areas of liberal states that have statewide rules in place.
In Oregon, where the governor has imposed a vaccination warrant on all school employees without opting out of testing, As of October 18, some school officials in rural areas are worried. A small district in central Oregon even delayed the school year by nine days to “fully plan and prepare for the staffing issues caused by the new vaccination mandate.”
But just as schools don’t want to lose staff, those who work in schools don’t want to lose their jobs. The tension creates a kind of pool game between unvaccinated teachers and school districts.
“What I’m telling people is not to quit,” said Jason Dudash, Oregon director of the Freedom Foundation, a conservative group that urges teachers to withdraw from their local unions. The organization has filed a complaint on behalf of six Oregon employees who do not want to be vaccinated. “Is the governor really going to follow up on this?” ”
The state has said schools cannot employ unvaccinated staff past the October deadline and face financial penalties if they fail to comply.