Detroit superintendent unlikely to push for staff vaccine mandate terminations

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.
Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said Friday he was reconsidering his position on the district’s staff vaccination policy in light of lack of legal, federal or state support. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he likely won’t seek to terminate unvaccinated employees, changing his position on enforcing the school district’s staff vaccine policy. Vitti’s comments come the same day employees of the Detroit Public Schools Community District were required to be vaccinated against COVID.

“I do not believe that I will be recommending terminations for those who are unvaccinated,” Vitti said in an email to Chalkbeat.

The school board approved a vaccine requirement in December that specified a Feb. 18 deadline for school employees to be fully vaccinated. Detroit is an outlier among school districts in Michigan to require a vaccine for its employees.

“A lot has changed since we moved forward with the employee vaccine mandate,” Vitti said, specifying that lack of state or local support for an employee vaccine requirement, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers, “places the district in a weak position to push the mandate.”

“I am proud that we have reached an 80% vaccine rate among employees, which was achieved earlier with the $500 incentive. I continue to believe that all people and our employees should vaccinate to protect themselves and others.”

Vitti said no decision has been made about whether unvaccinated employees will face any other disciplinary action.

“We have not administratively made that decision yet but it is doubtful,” Vitti said.

Previously, the district said it would use a progressive disciplinary process to enforce the mandate following the deadline, moving from a series of reminders to verbal and written warnings, suspension without pay, and termination.

Across the U.S., governments and school districts have relaxed COVID restrictions for schools as case rates and hospitalizations decline. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services lifted its mask advisories for schools earlier this week, citing declining cases and hospitalizations across the state. The move followed similar decisions by county health departments and local school districts in recent weeks.

Vitti said on Monday that the district is keeping its mask mandate for the time being as it waits for further recommendations from the Detroit Health Department.

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As of Feb. 4, about 81% of school employees have been vaccinated; an estimated 500 Detroit school district employees have filed a religious or medical exemption.

Chalkbeat requested updated numbers Thursday, but a district official said they wouldn’t be able to compile the information until after the weeklong mid-winter break, which starts Monday. 

“I think what this virus has taught us all or should have taught us is that we have to be flexible in what we do, and so I certainly hope that the district understands that as well,” said Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. Martin said some union members are awaiting responses to their exemption requests.

“At some point, there has to be a determination on whether or not a vaccine requirement is even appropriate at this time.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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