Denver reports nearly all school staff vaccinated, but 108 could lose jobs

A close-up photo of a person’s hands wearing blue latex gloves, preparing a syringe for a COVID-19 vaccination.
The Denver school district reports that 99.1% of its employees are vaccinated or received an exemption. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

Nearly all Denver Public Schools employees are now vaccinated following a mandate from the city. Superintendent Alex Marrero said Thursday that 99.1% of the district’s more than 13,700 employees had complied with the city health order to get the COVID-19 shots or an exemption.

But 108 employees are set to lose their jobs on Jan. 2 if they don’t get vaccinated or obtain an exemption before then. The school board on Thursday formally terminated the employees, but left open a window for them to get vaccinated and keep their jobs.

Board member Tay Anderson said he understands the hesitancy to get the vaccine, especially in Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities. But he said he hopes the employees will comply.

“I hope you will hear that our kids need you,” he said.

The vast majority of compliant employees have gotten the vaccine. Data shared with the school board showed that as of Nov. 8, fewer than 4% of employees had been granted a religious or medical exemption. The district has been requiring unvaccinated employees to get tested for COVID every week on their own time through COVIDCheck Colorado, which offers free testing.

The long timeline to terminate non-compliant employees makes it hard to know how the vaccine mandate will affect staffing in the 90,000-student district, which is experiencing the same shortages as many districts across the country. 

The 108 non-compliant employees include 34 paraprofessionals, 12 food service workers, 11 custodians, and 11 transportation workers, according to a list provided by a district spokesperson. They also include six members of the teachers union, whose members are classroom teachers, school counselors, career and technical instructors, and others.

While most departments will be able to absorb the losses, the transportation department can’t afford to lose any bus drivers, said Jim Carpenter, the district’s deputy superintendent of operations. The department is already about 40 drivers short, he said, despite a hiring push that includes offering signing and attendance bonuses as well as medical benefits.

“In transportation, we’ve been operating on really thin margins all year,” Carpenter said. “To lose one driver is a really big deal for transportation.”

The district hasn’t had to cut routes this year, though it did consolidate some due to low ridership, Carpenter said. Nor has it had to restrict which students are eligible to ride the bus. If that changes, Carpenter said the district would communicate with families next month.

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