With time running out, school leaders parse vaccination rules
Time is running out for school workers to meet vaccination requirements or face losing their jobs.
At the request of Gov. Kate Brown, the Oregon Health Authority mandated school staff, volunteers and contractors to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 if they work in school-based programs. Schools are still working out what exactly that means while waiting to see just how hard it will hit already short-staffed workforces.
School board members, short-term visitors, delivery people and district staff don’t have to be vaccinated if they’re not spending significant time with students, according to an OHA FAQ. People who have already been sick with COVID-19 still must get vaccinated.
Fully vaccinated means 14 days after the final shot.
The two-shot Moderna vaccine requires a four-week interval between shots, meaning school workers would have needed to get their first shot by Sept. 6. Pfizer calls for a three-week interval, making Monday, Sept. 13, the cut-off date. Workers would have until Oct. 4 for the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The rule allows only religious and medical exceptions, and that’s where it starts to get a little fuzzy.
A medical exception must be corroborated by a medical provider on a form created by the OHA. For a religious exception, the employee must describe how the vaccine conflicts with a “sincerely held religious belief.”
“It puts us in a weird spot of trying to determine who should receive a religious exception,” said Eric Milburn, board president of the Oregon Small Schools Association.
He said superintendents are also struggling to understand how unvaccinated people with and without documented exceptions can be employed. OSBA has created an FAQ to help.
“Everybody seems to second-guess what we are really supposed to be doing,” said Milburn.
According to the Oregon Department of Education, local leaders can decide whether to fire, place on leave or reassign unvaccinated employees without exceptions but unvaccinated people can’t work with children in a school setting. According to an email from ODE, that includes teaching online.
If the district grants an exception, the rule requires districts to take “reasonable steps to ensure that unvaccinated school-based program staff and volunteers are protected from contracting and spreading COVID-19.” The OHA FAQ offers example of precautions such as requiring N95 masks, physical distancing, regular testing or reassignment.
According to OHA Director Pat Allen, an unvaccinated teacher with an exception can work in a classroom if the district is taking reasonable precautions to prevent the teacher from contracting or transmitting the coronavirus.
The superintendent typically makes employment decisions such as accepting exceptions and making accommodations. If a teacher or administrator is to be fired, the superintendent would make a recommendation to the school board and the board would make the final decision.
Milburn said superintendents are interpreting the exception rules to keep as many people on the job as possible, especially in smaller schools that cannot easily replace key spots, such as a food services director in a department of one or the lone foreign language teacher.
He said a half-dozen districts have already told him they have had multiple people quit. Some employees have also flatly refused to get vaccinated or an exception and will have to be let go, Milburn said, but that is being put off as long as possible in case another option appears.
Many districts pushed for vaccinations in the early days of them being available, but by now most people have heard the arguments and made up their minds, he said.
Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney said that out of about 180 staff members, he has had four teachers and seven classified staff resign or retire since the mask and vaccination mandates were announced. He said he does not expect to lose any more, and he is working with his unions to come up with a plan for unvaccinated staff.
The Oregon School Employees Association, which represents about 20,000 school workers, said in an email statement that although most of its members are vaccinated, not all agree it should be mandatory. The OSEA said it is bargaining with districts “the impacts of mandatory vaccination policies.”
The Oregon Education Association, which represents teachers, issued a statement in mid-August supporting the mandate.
“We urge districts throughout the state to work collaboratively with educators on how this mandate is implemented at the local level and to continue efforts to maintain additional public health mitigation strategies,” the statement said.
ODE Director Colt Gill said that surveys done by districts show a high rate of vaccination among teachers, but ODE does not have exact numbers.
Schools do not need to report vaccination status, but they must be ready to present it to the OHA on request for up to two years. OHA can fine school-based programs that violate any part of the statute $500 per day per violation.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA