As employers and universities adopt vaccine mandates, Colorado school districts mostly quiet

A medical worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine in the right arm of a school nurse as she sits.
A school nurse at Cottonwood Creek Elementary in the Cherry Creek district receives a vaccine at Parker Adventist Hospital in January. Staff in some school districts may be mandated to get the vaccine if they haven’t already. (Rachel Ellis / The Denver Post)

As more employers across Colorado require workers to be vaccinated against COVID, school districts seem to be in no hurry to mandate vaccines for teachers and other staff.

One local district, the Aurora Public Schools, announced as far back as May that it planned to require the vaccine for employees as soon as it received full federal approval, which may now just be weeks away. 

In Denver, city officials took the decision away from the school district when they mandated the vaccine for several groups of workers, including anyone who works in a school or child care facility. The district is mandating face masks for all students and staff.

When it announced its own vaccine mandate, Aurora leaders saw the requirement as a way to minimize disruptions to in-person schooling this new school year and to ensure all staff could be treated the same after an exposure.

“Quarantines, particularly quarantines of adults, have been very disruptive,” said Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. 

In the past year, many students had to switch to remote learning, not because they were at risk, but because of an exposed adult. “That’s unacceptable,” Munn said.

Munn described the district’s layers of approaches, saying, “Vaccinations are the top layer.”

“We think that by enhancing our top layer, that allows you a little more leeway in the other layers,” he said. The other “layers” include requiring masks for unvaccinated staff but not for students, regular testing for athletes, and continued screening of students when they enter a building.

Denver public health officials did not respond to requests for comment about their decision. In other districts, officials also refused to answer questions about how they’ve weighed whether or not to require vaccines. 

The Adams 12 school district officials said in a statement that they believe a “very large percentage of staff” is already vaccinated, citing a poll from February that indicated 75% of staff were interested in the vaccine. Adams 12’s statement notes that another reason the district has not considered making the vaccine a requirement is that it is still under emergency use authorization.

Experts say vaccine mandates likely will hold up in court

Many experts say that mandates, even while a vaccine is under emergency use, are unlikely to be successfully challenged in courts. 

Daniel Goldberg, public health law and ethics professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, said that a common misconception is that because the vaccines are currently under an emergency use authorization, that they are experimental, which he said is false.

“If it’s gone through the process to get emergency use authorization, it is an approved intervention,” Goldberg said. “In terms of the amount of data that we have, these are the most evaluated therapies we’ve ever used anywhere. We have hundreds of millions of uses in like five months.”

But because the emergency use authorization is a relatively new label, there has been some question about how a court would view the language in statute. The U.S. Department of Justice issued an opinion siding with allowing mandates.

“The authority to issue a mandate is not really conditioned on whether the vaccine is fully approved,” Goldberg said. “But the legal situation is untested and untried.”

Restrictions on liberties, however, aren’t new, Goldberg said.

“We don’t let people decide of their own volition if they have to slow down in a school zone,” Goldberg said. “We don’t let people make decisions on whether they want to drive their kids home drunk. We restrict people’s liberties.”

It’s the same as if a school district imposes different consequences for people who aren’t vaccinated, he said. For instance, the Jeffco school district said that staff that don’t demonstrate proof of vaccination will be required to wear a mask in schools. Those that are vaccinated are still encouraged to wear a mask, but don’t have to.

Generally, he added, people have a choice when their job requires them to get a vaccine: They can get a different job.

Munn said he is not concerned about staff leaving Aurora schools in protest of the mandate, and staffing numbers so far don’t signal a problem. 

“That’s why we did this in May so people had plenty of time to make decisions about whether or not they wanted to make a change,” Munn said. “As our numbers have played out, we don’t think this has played into it.”

Some teachers spoke against the mandate at board meetings earlier this year, with some citing misinformation such as the fear that the vaccine might harm a pregnancy or cause infertility. No significant evidence has emerged to back up those concerns and the CDC now states that pregnant women can get the vaccine as they are at higher risk of developing serious complications from COVID.

The Aurora district hosted a staff webinar with experts from the state and put out informational flyers to provide more information about the vaccine.

Nationally, teachers unions had been opposed to vaccine mandates, another possible factor in why some school districts aren’t requiring it. However, Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press that unions should work with districts to develop mandates with medical and religious exemptions. 

Often teachers ask that the decision to vaccinate be a personal choice. 

Vaccine hesitancy

Jennifer Reich, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver, has been studying vaccine hesitancy for more than a decade. She said that people who are hesitant to get a certain vaccine are not the exception in our society.

“I argue that it’s a logical manifestation of the culture we have,” Reich said. 

That’s the culture of individualism and how people talk about health, allowing most people to believe health is a matter of one’s own actions.

“You can’t control disease completely through personal behavior, but that’s not how we talk about illness,” Reich said. 

It’s contradictory to how vaccines are used toward public health that requires people to weigh the health of the community, not only of their own individual risk, she said.

Reich wrote a book, “Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines,” and talked to many parents who pick and choose which vaccines they trust for each child, depending on the risk they see. Many of those parents just don’t believe their children could get sick, because they eat well, they were breastfed, or are currently healthy.

“One thing I heard over and over is fear,” Reich added. “If their child does have a bad reaction, does get sick, they’re alone in that. At the end of the day they’re responsible. And that’s a lot to put on parents and mostly mothers.”

School districts in Colorado have not mandated the COVID vaccine for students, but it’s possible they could.

Typically, local public health agencies and individual schools haven’t decided the vaccines students are required to have to go to school. The state mandates which vaccines are required through law and rules, and changes “would be done through the standard state Board of Health rulemaking process,” according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Colorado makes it easier than many states for parents to get exemptions to required vaccines.

While public school districts haven’t announced student vaccine requirements, several colleges and universities have made the COVID vaccine mandatory for both staff and students.

Reich believes one difference between vaccine mandates for K-12 students and for college students is that K-12 education is required. College students are making a choice to be in those places, and must abide by the rules. Employees are similarly not required to be in a specific job.

For children to be required to get the vaccine, there must be more certainty that it is the safest thing to do. 

“One of the reasons we have vaccine requirements for children is because we have mandatory education for children,” Reich said. “If we’re going to force you to come to a classroom, we should make sure that legal requirement doesn’t introduce risk to you.”

In an emailed statement, the state Department of Public Health and Environment, said school districts or private schools, “could decide to require their students to receive a non-state mandated vaccine. This is similar to what some universities are doing. The state sets a baseline of requirements, and if schools want to do more, they can do so as long as it doesn’t contradict anything the state does.”

As mandates for the COVID vaccine become more common, Reich said school districts could educate the community and address parents’ concerns.

“Schools haven’t had to do community education in this way,” she said. “For most of us we’ve never been in a pandemic. We don’t have an experience with the fact that new vaccines always require some refining. That doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.”

“Parents could be given more information to understand the process by which safety is monitored,” Reich said. “They could have questions that deserve good answers.”

Note: This story has been updated to correct the university affiliation for Daniel Goldberg.

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