Detroit school board considers rescinding employee vaccine mandate

A group of masked parents and children are in a school gymnasium receiving vaccine shots.
A potential update to a vaccine mandate for Detroit Public Schools Community District employees could turn the policy into a recommendation. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

The Detroit school district is looking to turn its vaccination policy for school employees from a mandate into a recommendation. 

The new policy, if approved by the board, “requires all employees to disclose their COVID vaccine status and strongly encourages employees to vaccinate,” according to a draft presented for its first reading during Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Board members didn’t comment on the draft during the first reading. All district policies must be reviewed by the board twice before they can be approved. The next scheduled board meeting is May 10.

The current policy requires all employees to have been fully vaccinated by Feb. 18, unless they received a medical or religious exemption from the school district. As of April 12, about 84% of school employees had been vaccinated, according to the district.

When the district adopted the policy in December, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district would use a progressive disciplinary process to enforce it, moving from a series of reminders to verbal and written warnings, suspension without pay, and ultimately, termination.

But in February, he said he likely wouldn’t seek to terminate unvaccinated employees, citing a lack of state or local support for an employee vaccine requirement, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that blocked a Biden administration vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union, said that the changing nature of the pandemic calls for reconsidering the policy.

“We’re hoping that (the vaccine policy) turns into more of a suggestion as opposed to a requirement for folks to be disciplined if they don’t do it,” Martin said.

“If we were talking about this a year ago, it would have made more sense,” Martin added. “But now, with the way things are with COVID, it’s going to be something that we’re going to live with.”

Vaccination rates in Detroit remain low compared with the rest of the state. About 48% of city residents ages 5 and older have received at least one vaccine dose. The rest of Wayne County has a 72% vaccination rate, while statewide, the rate is 65%.

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

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