What mandate? Across U.S., teacher vaccine rules slow to reach classrooms

A red clapboard sign sits on a patch of green grass in front of a red brick school building. The sign reads “covid-19 vaccination clinic, clínica para vacunación de covid-19”
A sign outside Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis shows visitors where to enter a pop-up COVID vaccine clinic. Across the U.S. vaccine mandates for school staff have been slow to actually reach the classroom. (Carson TerBush / Chalkbeat)

When Clark County, Nevada’s school board began to consider requiring its teachers and staff to get the COVID vaccine earlier this month, resistance was fierce

At the board meeting, some opponents said the rule would amount to an infringement on their liberty. Others regurgitated discredited medical claims about vaccine safety. Some teachers vowed to quit rather than get the shot. “Myself and my doctor decide what I do with my body and medical decisions — not you, my employer,” said one teacher in the district. “We want our freedom.”

Board members in the country’s fifth-largest district, home to Las Vegas, held firm, voting 5-1 in favor of the policy. But the fight is actually far from over.

The board’s resolution did not put in place a mandate; it simply allowed district officials to start negotiating one with local unions. No agreement has been reached to date. Meanwhile, one in three staff members have not provided proof of vaccination, officials said earlier this month.

Clark County’s experience illustrates a broader reality: Despite a rise in schools and states declaring vaccines mandatory, America’s schools have been slow to actually impose such requirements on staff.

In some cases, negotiations are ongoing. In others, a testing opt-out provides a significant loophole. Many aren’t imposing vaccine rules whatsoever. Even in the strictest districts, the timeline allows teachers to be in the classroom for a month or two before being fully vaccinated.

Few districts have started enforcing the mandates yet, either — and as districts struggle with staffing shortages, it remains to be seen whether they will.  

In many places, “Parents think that there’s a vaccine mandate, but really there’s not,” said Lesley Lavery, a professor at Macalester College where she studies teachers unions. “We’ve got to look at the fine print.” 

Several states bar schools from mandating vaccines at all. But among 100 large U.S. school districts, about a third have staff vaccine rules of some sort, according to a tracker kept by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and more are moving in that direction. Washington, D.C. announced a full vaccine mandate for school staff Monday. 

CRPE’s figure includes districts like Clark County, which for now only requires weekly testing of unvaccinated staff. Also included is Philadelphia, where the school district requires twice-weekly testing for those who aren’t vaccinated, compared to weekly testing for those who are. Staff there will not lose their jobs if they don’t get the shot, the district recently acknowledged. 

Similarly, a number of states — including California and New Jersey — that have imposed putative vaccine mandates allow school staff instead to get regularly tested. 

That’s an important distinction, says Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University. Weekly testing simply doesn’t offer as much protection as vaccination, she said, since a positive test result could come after someone has already infected others. “It’s not as good,” said Hassig.

The country’s three largest districts, New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, don’t allow a testing alternative. (They do allow medical and religious exemptions.) Even there, though, educators could be in school buildings for weeks without that protection.

While parents who want to enter New York City school buildings must show proof of at least one vaccine dose now, teachers have until Sept. 27 to get their first shot and another 45 days to get their second. In Los Angeles and Chicago, school staff have until Oct. 15 to be fully vaccinated. 

In fact, it doesn’t appear that any large school district started this year with a full vaccine mandate in place, though the vaccine was available beginning last spring and teachers often were provided with early access to it. (One exception was Success Academy, a large charter network in New York City, which required staff to be fully vaccinated prior to the start of school in August.)

Vaccines don’t prevent all cases of COVID-19, but they have been shown to reduce someone’s chances of contracting and spreading the virus. 

A recent case study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted the risk to students when their teacher is not protected. An unvaccinated teacher with COVID symptoms in Marin County, California took off their mask to read aloud; soon, half the class was infected with COVID.

COVID cases in children are rarely severe, but they have become increasingly prevalent, and children can play a role in spreading the virus within a community. COVID transmission can also disrupt in-person schooling: New York City recently shut down a Manhattan school for students with severe disabilities after 16 staff members contracted the virus after a staff orientation.

Rebecca Garcia, who has three kids in the Clark County schools, wants to see teachers vaccinated to minimize disruptions from positive cases. “If it’s one step to making sure that we can have a more normal school environment then that’s something I’m not going to argue with,” she said.

Polls show that while most of the public supports teacher vaccine requirements, parents are more closely split on the question.

Teachers are also divided, which has their unions walking a careful line. 

“I represent educators who are on both sides,” said Marie Neisess, president of the Clark County Education Association. “While we are not against vaccines, we just want to ensure — now that it’s going to be mandatory — that we have the opportunity to bargain on behalf of all educators.”

In New York City, officials said that unvaccinated staff without a medical or religious exemption will be placed on unpaid leave. In Los Angeles, school officials also say unvaccinated staff could face dismissal. But in places where a big share of staff members don’t want to get the vaccine, following through on this threat could be challenging.

“Are you really going to terminate staff when many districts are having staffing shortages?” said Bree Dusseault, who has tracked district policies at CRPE.

A spokesperson for Clark County schools, which still has several hundred teaching positions unfilled, did not respond to a request for comment.

Roxanne James, a middle school principal in Clark County, says she expects that some of her staff members will quit if a mandate is put in place. “There will be a loss at first,” she said. “What we’ll do is we’ll plan for it, we’ll adjust for it.” 

That might require her to get rid of classes specifically for students who are learning virtually, she acknowledged. Still, she supports the district’s decision to pursue a vaccine mandate. 

“What hurts me right now is to see kids go home sick,” she said. 

It’s not clear precisely what share of school staff are already vaccinated. An Education Week poll over the summer found that 87% of teachers said they had received the shot, but 11% said they didn’t intend to.

The staffing challenges may be particularly acute in politically conservative areas within liberal states that have put in place statewide rules. 

In Oregon, where the governor has imposed a vaccine mandate on all school employees without a testing opt out, effective Oct. 18, some school officials in rural areas are worried. One small district in central Oregon even delayed the school year by nine days to “fully plan and prepare for staffing challenges caused by the new vaccine mandate.” 

But just like schools don’t want to lose staff, those working in schools don’t want to lose their jobs. The tension is creating something of a game of chicken between unvaccinated teachers and school districts.

“What I am telling people is not to quit,” said Jason Dudash, the Oregon director of the Freedom Foundation, a conservative group that urges teachers to opt out of their local union. The organization has filed a lawsuit on behalf of six Oregon employees who don’t want to get the shot. “Will the governor actually follow through on this?” 

The state has said that schools cannot employ unvaccinated staff after the October deadline and will face financial penalties if they don’t comply.

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