Hundreds of Detroit school employees file vaccine exemptions

A masked woman receives a shot from a doctor.

An estimated 500 Detroit school district employees have filed a religious or medical exemption ahead of the district’s deadline for staff to be fully vaccinated, according to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District is requiring all employees to get vaccinated by Feb. 18. Until then, the district has required all staff to undergo weekly testing.

The district reported that about 81% of school employees have been fully vaccinated, as of Feb. 4. That includes 86% of teachers.

“I don’t look at this positively or negatively, but it is clear that the courts and legal precedent is favoring the exemptions. So it will be difficult for the district to deny many of these exemptions,” Vitti said during Tuesday’s board meeting.

School staff vaccination requirements have met with mixed compliance nationwide. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, nearly 2,000 staff members, including 3% of K-12 teachers, received an exemption from the COVID vaccine. The district fired 500 employees in December who failed to comply with the mandate.

Across Oregon and Washington, states that required school employees to be vaccinated last fall, vaccine exemption rates varied by school districts, from the single digits to as high as 26%.

The Detroit district’s legal and human resources staff, along with outside legal counsel, will review religious and medical exemption requests. Employees who have requested exemptions will be notified of their status “by the end of this week or early next week,” Vitti said.

The district will 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 ultimately, termination.

“I will not be making any recommendations for termination until June if it leads to that point,” Vitti said. “Employees in general, families, community…should not be fearful of employees not being there to support students throughout the school year based on the vaccine mandate, but there will be consequences.”

The district would not begin to suspend employees until April or May, Vitti added, which would “give people time to vaccinate or it gives us time to re-evaluate the mandate.”

Dwayne Harvey, a Detroit school district teacher, spoke out during the meeting against the mandate, citing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

“I don’t know where your heart is, but I know this is the wrong path,” Harvey said. 

In the absence of guidance from the state, only a few of Michigan’s more than 800 school districts require staff to get vaccinated against COVID or to take regular tests. Individual districts are allowed to implement such requirements in spite of the Supreme Court decision.

“We were already in a legal standing to require the vaccine mandate,” Vitti said. “Nothing really changed regarding that issue. There have been previous cases and laws that allow school districts as an organization to require the vaccine.” 

Staff mandate prompt concerns about vacancies

Detroit board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo asked Vitti whether it was possible to transfer unvaccinated staff to the district’s virtual school instead of suspension, to avoid creating more vacancies. 

“We have the deadline by which our staff would have to have the vaccine, but with those who are continuing to grapple with it that may not fall under the guidelines for a traditional waiver, what are we considering besides getting rid of our staff?” Gay-Dagnogo said.

Vitti said he was open to moving unvaccinated teachers to the virtual school where enrollment continues to rise as a new student COVID testing mandate kicks in. As of Friday, 96% of students had filed forms consenting to get tested at school. Those who haven’t been vaccinated and don’t consent to weekly COVID testing will be transferred to the virtual school by the end of the month.

Correction: Feb. 10, 2022: A previous version of this story said only unvaccinated staff at Detroit Public Schools Community District are required to receive weekly COVID testing. All school employees, regardless of vaccination status, are required to receive weekly testing.

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