Detroit district approves vaccine mandate for school employees

A woman wearing scrubs, medical gloves, and a KN95 mask draws vaccine from a vial using a syringe needle. Another person in the background watches.
The staff vaccine policy was unanimously approved by the Detroit Board of Education during a special board meeting Thursday. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

Detroit school district employees now have until Feb. 18 to be fully vaccinated, according to a new policy approved by the school board.

The policy was unanimously approved by the board during a special meeting Thursday. Those who don’t comply with the policy risk losing their jobs, though there are exemptions for medical or religious reasons.

The Detroit 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.

Staff members are still expected to get tested and wear masks while in school. The Detroit school district conducts weekly COVID tests for both students and staff. Testing is required for staff and optional for students.

“I know we are not unique in this space, because I know people are moving to this in other school districts…this is a step needed for us to avoid that interruption in the educational process,” board chair Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said during Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Approximately 80% of district employees have already been vaccinated, according to district spokesperson Chrystal Wilson. The district employed roughly 7,900 staff members, according to data from the 2020-21 school year.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti echoed his support of an employee vaccine mandate during Tuesday’s school board meeting, considering it one of many efforts to “keep students in school learning Monday through Friday.”

During the Tuesday meeting, Vitti said 11,000 students were affected by school-related closures due to multiple COVID outbreaks.

The district is also looking into the legality of a vaccine mandate for students, Vitti said, with plans for a potential fall 2022 deadline for students to be fully vaccinated.

The school board also approved revisions to the district’s reopening plan, which would force schools to move to remote learning for 10 days in the case of potential outbreaks. 

Individual schools could close facilities for 10 days if a school’s weekly testing results reached 5-7% infection rate, while a 3-5% COVID positivity rate may warrant a one-day closure to deep clean a school building.

The decision, Vitti said, responds to district staff concern and feedback about the challenges tracing close contacts and confirming individual or schoolwide quarantines.

Detroit school teacher Kendra Visser Lincourt said she is “all for the vaccine mandate,” noting that most of the teachers she knows in the district had already been vaccinated.

“Knowing that all of my coworkers will be vaccinated is a huge relief,” she said. “There’s definitely talk of some teachers quitting, but in the long run I really think it’s mostly talk.”

Keith January, president of the district’s local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which covers support staff such as school aides, custodians and food service attendants, supported the decision in the hopes that it will mitigate the spread of the virus among students with acute health conditions.

“I’m not going to tell the district they can’t mandate my people to be vaccinated,” January said. “I’m not gonna do it, because unless they can prove it is against their religious beliefs or they have some kind of pre-existing condition, which I believe is included in the vaccination language, that’s all a union official can ask for.”

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