Our View: A failure of leadership at ACPS

Our View: A failure of leadership at ACPS
The 1953 invention of the Salk vaccine changed the hold polio had on the lives of American parents and children. (File photo)

Alexandria City Public Schools is scheduled to present a plan to the School Board on Thursday night for a vaccine and testing requirement for staff.

It’s difficult to decide which is more disappointing: that this topic is just now being considered – five days before all students and staff return to fulltime, in-person learning next week – or that a staff vaccine “requirement,” even if the School Board passes it, is likely to be toothless.

Both aspects are going to leave students and their families, as well as staff and their families, needlessly at a greater risk of catching COVID-19 than if the ACPS administration had acted earlier and forcefully.

The timing of this is utterly baffling.

Teachers were among the first people to be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year. A vaccination day was held at ACPS with great fanfare, as Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. was lauded on these pages and elsewhere for leading the way by being one of the first to be vaccinated. Lack of vaccine availability was one of the reasons cited for requiring all-virtual learning for most students for almost the entire school year.

By June, there were more vaccine doses available in Virginia than people willing to get the shot. So why wasn’t a vaccine mandate proposed by ACPS leadership then? Why didn’t the School Board vote in June to require all teachers and school staff, including contract employees working inside schools, to be fully vaccinated by Aug. 24?

Mandating a vaccine now, even if the requirement has teeth, means that teachers and staff who comply and get the shot this week won’t be considered fully vaccinated for between four and six weeks, depending on whether they get the one-dose Johnson & Johnson or two-shot Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

This means that unvaccinated teachers and staff, even with the mask mandate, are likely to spread this highly contagious Delta COVID-19 variant throughout our city schools beginning next week.

Just as upsetting as timing is the unenforceability of vaccine “requirements” that have been approved in other school districts, as that’s surely what’s on the table here.

Fairfax and Montgomery counties have implemented vaccine mandates – but there are exceptions for medical and religious reasons. And if teachers and staff don’t want to get it, there’s no penalty, just a requirement for weekly testing.

Think about that for a minute.

That’s akin to a law that requires drivers to stop at stop signs – unless they just don’t want to. In that case, a camera will take photos at stop signs once a week, on Monday mornings. While violators will be notified within 24 hours, there’s no penalty for being caught running the sign.

Yes, most drivers would stop at stop signs even without the threat of a ticket because they recognize that doing so is in their own self-interest. But think of the damage that would be caused by those who don’t stop because they know they won’t be punished for their actions – even if those actions harm others.

The vaccination rate among ACPS staff appears to be low. After reaching out to ACPS, the Times was able to learn that about 62% of ACPS teachers and staff have voluntarily reported their fully vaccinated status. Parents and students have a right to know this information, as it would help parents make difficult decisions about whether or not to let their children attend ACPS this year. There are alternatives, from private schools like Alexandria Country Day School, which has a 100% vaccine rate among teachers and staff, to home-schooling.

It’s demoralizing that at the start of a school year, which should be filled with excitement and anticipation for learning, the potential of unvaccinated teachers and staff spreading COVID-19 through ACPS instead hovers like a specter.