Superintendents confident Oct. 18 vaccination deadline won’t disrupt classes
The Oct. 18 vaccination deadline has raised fears of a mass exodus of Oregon health care and emergency workers. But school superintendents say that after weeks of hard conversations, most school workers will be in compliance.
Roseburg School District Superintendent Jared Condon said he expects to have nearly all his roughly 800 employees in compliance.
“It’s not an issue,” Condon said. “We spent time working through questions, and I don’t expect to see a loss of service.”
Seven superintendents interviewed for this story said their districts were close to 100% staff compliance with the vaccine mandate, and they said their colleagues said the same. None expected school disruptions next week because of a loss of employees.
On Aug. 19 Gov. Kate Brown ordered the Oregon Health Authority to create a rule mandating school staff, volunteers and contractors to be fully vaccinated or be granted an exception by Oct. 18 or they would be barred from working in school programs. Staff could request a medical exception corroborated by a medical provider or a religious exception based on a “sincerely held religions belief.”
As of last week, 71% of Oregon residents were fully vaccinated, according to the Oregon Health Authority, but that varies from a low of 43% in Lake County to a high of 81% in Hood River, Multnomah and Washington counties.
Superintendents report higher vaccination rates among staffs than in their counties, with most exceptions for religious reasons.
Superintendents, reluctant to judge their employees’ beliefs, said they were not rejecting any properly filled out forms. Several superintendents objected to forms that seemed to be from an online template but accepted revised versions that were more individualized. Some religious exception forms also strayed into political reasons, and superintendents asked for revisions.
Superintendents say a few employees are holding paperwork until the last day to register their displeasure and a few employees have quit, but they all expect to be sufficiently staffed to continue school.
Condon credited the “local control” nature of the state mandate for helping school leaders. Local leaders have been responsible for collecting information and approving exceptions. They do not have to report vaccinations unless asked.
Districts worked hard to overcome the initial resistance, with staff meetings, health official presentations, one-on-one dialogues and, in some cases, beginning the termination process. It was extra work for leaders already hard-pressed by COVID-19’s disruptions, but it also allowed superintendents to address staff concerns individually, Condon said.
“When I initially talked to people, they were like, ‘I’m not doing this,’ but when you can have a conversation with someone about the why and the how and the what, that made a difference,” Condon said.
He said he did not think there would have been the same level of participation if an agency in Salem had been the contact point. He suggested the vaccine roll-out might offer lessons for other statewide mandates because people have a higher trust level with decision-makers they know.
Morrow County School District Superintendent Dirk Dirksen said only a handful of his roughly 300 employees haven’t turned in paperwork. He said about a quarter of the staff received exceptions.
Dirksen said operations will not be affected Monday, but he may have to take action with a couple of staff members.
“We’re all trying to follow the law,” he said. “The law is stating they can no longer be employed.”
Employees with exceptions must take extra precautions to ensure they don’t catch or transmit COVID-19. Districts are requiring KN95 masks rather than personal ones and at least one district is recommending a face shield as well. Some district requirements also include physical distancing and regular testing. No superintendents contacted said they would be reassigning people.
Superintendents said data from the past year showed they could successfully mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools, even among the unvaccinated.
Oct. 18 still holds disruption possibilities. There have been a few calls for staff or student walkouts on Monday to protest the mandate, but superintendents did not know of any organized efforts. Some appear to be generated from out of state or by people without children in the districts.
With 197 school districts, experiences Monday could vary wildly. Several large districts have already reported they will be fine, but small districts where the loss of even one employee can be devastating are more vulnerable.
Cove School District Superintendent Earl Pettit said all 20 of his teachers are compliant but he’s still waiting on four support staff and coaches. He said the biggest problem for his district east of La Grande is finding substitute teachers, who have dropped out of the pool if they are not going to comply.
Oregon’s licensed substitute pool has shrunk more than 40% since 2019 for a variety of reasons mostly related to the pandemic, according to a recent story from The Oregonian/OregonLive. The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission has created an Emergency Substitute Teaching License that does not require a bachelor’s degree in an effort to shore up schools’ needs.
Schools are facing challenging staff shortages and OSBA appreciates TSPC’s efforts to address this crisis in the short term, said OSBA Executive Director Jim Green.
“We look forward to working with TSPC for long-term licensing solutions that best fit the needs of students and schools,” Green said.
InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said northeast Oregon districts had only lost a handful of employees to the vaccination requirement and the bigger problem is the loss of staff to quarantines and illnesses.
Staff who have been vaccinated don’t have to quarantine after COVID-19 exposures, according to the Oregon Department of Education, a major selling point for getting the shots.
Mulvihill said the push for the Oct. 18 deadline has been an exhausting “emotional roller coaster” but the localized approach has made it easier for communities to move on.
“Nothing helps quiet a community down more than school staff supporting something,” he said.
The focus needs to return to providing students what they need and deserve this year, Mulvihill said.
“I think we have worked through the hysteria,” Mulvihill said. “I think staff and communities want to move on from this. They want schools open.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA