The Detroit school district is moving toward a vaccine policy that, if approved by the board, would require all district staff members be vaccinated before the end of the school year.
The Detroit Board of Education’s policy committee OK’d a draft of the mandate on Thursday, which specifies a Feb. 18 deadline for district employees to be fully vaccinated. Those who don’t comply risk losing their jobs, though there would be exemptions for medical or religious reasons, according to the draft.
District vaccine mandates for staff are rare in Michigan, which had the second largest number of COVID cases per capita in the country over the last week. The Biden administration’s sweeping vaccine requirement for staff members of large organizations is tied up in court. While local districts have the power to impose their own mandates, few have done so.
“If you don’t want to have people absent because of COVID, get them vaccinated,” said Sarah Reckhow, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, which has a vaccine requirement for students and staff.
“I’ve been surprised that more superintendents are not using the authority available to them to require vaccination.”
Districts across the state are struggling with staffing vacancies and shortages of substitute teachers that could be exacerbated if staff fall ill with COVID and have to stay home.
Lansing Public Schools may be the only Michigan district thus far with a vaccine requirement for staff, said Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director for external relations at Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. He added that the group doesn’t take a position on whether districts should impose such requirements.
Vaccination rates in Detroit remain low: About 44% of city residents ages 5 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, behind figures across the rest of Wayne County and Michigan, which tout 68% and 62% vaccination rates, respectively.
The draft policy is expected to be reviewed by the Detroit school board for a first reading during Tuesday’s board meeting, said Misha Stallworth-West, a board member who chairs the policy committee. All district policies must be reviewed by the board twice before they can be approved.
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti views the COVID vaccine as “the best way to prevent schools from closing and going online.”
“COVID will always be a part of our society,” said Vitti in a parent listening session on Wednesday. “The only way we stop the spread and stop letting it disrupt our lives and teaching and learning is through vaccination.”
The district’s policy would follow guidelines from the state and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which have created guidance for COVID employee vaccination, testing, and masking.
“We certainly understand the district’s reasoning behind moving in this direction,” said Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. The teachers union is prepared to bargain with the district and the school board if the policy is enacted. “We’ve had a lot of school closings, quarantine isolations due to COVID. I think we all want some continuity of education, but we want to make sure that it is fair.”
The last survey the union conducted of its members, Martin said, revealed an even split between those in favor of and against a vaccine mandate. The district has offered incentives to employees who receive a vaccine dose, including a $500 bonus, which Martin believes may have pushed some educators to get a shot.
Around 70% of district employees have been vaccinated, Vitti said in October.
Ultimately, Martin suggested, for the district to stem COVID cases and outbreaks in schools, the solution should include requiring eligible students to be vaccinated.
“A mandate for employees is one thing, but if you really want to start to turn the tide, and really get into trying to control this virus, a mandate should include children.”
Vitti said during a finance committee meeting Friday that the district is reviewing whether it has the legal authority to require children get vaccinated.
“We are asking the state through the attorney general to give us an opinion about mandating student vaccines and also possibly mandating testing, where a student would not be able to attend school, if they didn’t test or they weren’t vaccinated, and maybe instead have to attend a virtual school until enough time is given for the vaccine or for the testing consent,” said Vitti.
The district currently is conducting voluntary student testing. About 60% of students have turned in consent forms to be tested, Vitti said.