By Andrew Keshner
That’s a step that school administrators and school board members should seriously consider, according to one public health expert who said she’s “concerned about where we are headed” with the delta variant-fueled rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.
A vaccine mandate for adult staff at schools wouldn’t just be another method to push the vaccination rate higher and protect unvaccinated students who cannot get the shot because they are too young, explained Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer for the University of Michigan and a professor of medicine in the university’s Division of Infectious Diseases.
“It’s about trying to make the learning environment as good as possible,” Malani noted, and also about limiting the disruption students and staff experience when schools switch between remote and in-person learning as case counts rise and fall, she said.
Malani spoke to MarketWatch after briefing reporters Tuesday on the mix of pandemic issues that colleges and K-12 school systems will face this fast-approaching fall.
“I would support employers and schools taking a close look at what they can do to push the envelope on this,” Malani said in response to a question on employer vaccination requirements during the Infectious Diseases Society of America briefing. “We need do something beyond just saying, ‘Go get vaccinated.’”
Biden mulling federal mandate
On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced all city workers would have to be vaccinated or undergo regular COVID-19 testing.
The mayor’s decision applies to teachers and staff in the city school system — the country’s largest school system — according to city Department of Education spokespeople. At least 60% of the department’s staff is already vaccinated, and that count doesn’t include staff who live outside of the city and may have been vaccinated elsewhere, they noted.
The United Federation of Teachers, the major teachers union in the city, backed de Blasio’s decision.
“Vaccination and testing have helped keep schools among the safest places in the city,” the union said in a statement. “This approach puts the emphasis on vaccination but still allows for personal choice and provides additional safeguards through regular testing. There are still many things to do before we are prepared to safely open our schools in September. “
The same day as de Blasio’s announcement, California Governor Gavin Newsom said all state workers would have to either be vaccinated or undergo regular testing. Also Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs said medical employees would need to get their shots — and that was just hours after a group of more than 50 medical professional associations called on hospitals and other healthcare providers to require staff vaccination.
President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he was considering requiring all federal employees to be vaccinated. California’s state university system said Tuesday it would require all students and staff — including 56,000 faculty members — to be vaccinated this fall.
The Los Angeles school system is currently being sued by some teachers and staff over its rules on employee vaccination. The school system previously told MarketWatc h it is not requiring vaccination and the case is pending.
Big school systems are facing questions about vaccination policies, and so are smaller ones. In Grandview, Mo. — about 15 miles south of Kansas City — Kenny Rodrequez, superintendent of schools for the Grandview C-4 School District, said the school system did its best to encourage staff vaccination, but there’s currently no vaccination mandate policy in place.
Beyond New York City, Rodrequez wasn’t aware of big public school systems in the country with a vaccination requirement.
If a mandate comes down from state lawmakers, Rodrequez said he’ll be ready to carry it out. “We kind of sit and wait and see how the political winds are going to impact us,” he said.
If the 4,000-student district decided on its own to require inoculation, Rodrequez said that wouldn’t happen unless he, the school board, teachers’ union and parents were all on the same page. Any decision to require vaccination would be difficult, he said.
“I think no matter what, it’s going be a very difficult school year. I think, on a positive note, we are all more prepared than we were last year. Now we are in a better position to deal with that uncertainty,” he said.
Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators, a professional association with approximately 25,000 members mostly in public schools, said there’s been uptick in calls from members about the prospects of vaccine mandate.
Most come from people who don’t want the shot for themselves, but others come from vaccinated teachers who resent the idea of losing local control about personnel decisions. “You can certainly sense the frustration of educators who have enough on their plate as it is,” Sharkey said.
Like Rodrequez, Malani said she wasn’t aware of other large public school systems requiring vaccination for school staff. However, she noted the private school that her high school daughter attended did require vaccination for staff.
She remembered getting a school email informing parents about the policy and compliance. “As a parent, that was a good email to get,” Malani said.
Teachers are already under pressure
However, vaccine mandates for educators could cost schools staff, Sharkey said. “I think there are enough challenges keeping talent in the profession that mandating educators to get vaccinated to teach in school is going to be too much for too many educators,” Sharkey said.
Nearly one in four teachers have said they may quit by the end of the year, a recent survey by RAND found. About 80% of pre-K-12 teachers, school staff and child care workers had received at least one vaccine shot by the end of March, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If vaccine mandates have to happen, they should be at the most local level possible, instead of topdown from officials at higher levels of governments, Sharkey said.
On Tuesday, the CDC announced that it’s reversing May guidelines that said fully-vaccinated people do not need to wear masks inside. The newly updated guidelines say everyone in school buildings ought to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status.
Last year, many students started the year learning remotely and increasingly returned to in-person schooling later in the year. Some states and cities have said they won’t offer remote learning in the 2021-2022 school year — but that was before the rise of the delta variant.
“If the pandemic changes and there continues to be a rise in cases, and you start to see cases in the school setting, it may be that some schools may go back to a hybrid model. But the expectation right now is that it should be fully in-person learning,” Dr. Tina Tan, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said at the Tuesday briefing.
The Pfizer /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE -0.63% -BioNTech /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX +0.69% vaccine can currently only be administered to kids ages 12 and up. Approximately 30% of the teenagers from age 12 to 17 are now vaccinated, according to Tan.
Some employers have recently announced more stringent vaccine requirements for their workers, and now it’s a question whether that approach seeps into schools teaching kindergartners through high school seniors.