Our View: Time for a true vaccine mandate

Our View: Time for a true vaccine mandate
ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo/ACPS)

It’s time that the “requirement” for city employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine become a true requirement.

On Aug. 19, Alexandria’s School Board approved the proposal of Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. that school staff be “required” to receive the vaccine. But with no penalty for those who declined, it actually wasn’t a requirement at all, only a suggestion.

Then, the next day, the City of Alexandria issued a release stating that ACPS and the city are “joining together to implement a COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirement for all City government and ACPS school staff.” All city employees will be required to provide proof of vaccination. Those who can’t or decline to do so will be subject to weekly testing.

This was a positive step that reinforced the message from ACPS and is helpful because there’s certainly a subset of people who will do something if they’re told it’s a requirement. We will leave it to the psychologists to determine how significant a factor this is.

Unfortunately, the city’s requirement has no more teeth than that of ACPS, as there’s no penalty for not complying.

As for testing, which is what city employees who decline to be vaccinated would be required to get each week at taxpayer expense – that’s simply not enough. In the midst of another COVID-19 surge, while Alexandria remains in the high transmission category, weekly testing needs to be done of all staff and students anyway to prevent asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus.

Universal vaccination of those eligible to receive it, along with masks and frequent testing, is the combination that should prevent widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 during the 2021-22 school year and among other city workers.

And it’s the vaccination piece that is key to keeping school doors open for the entirety of this school year. It can’t be overstated how vital it is that all school workers, both staff and contract employees, receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

It’s easy to talk a good game about equity. In schools, equity should mean putting every possible measure in place to increase learning and academic performance for all students. Nothing ACPS leadership could do this year would go more toward that goal than a true vaccine requirement.

It’s students of color, as ACPS’ own data showed, who suffered most from the all-virtual instruction that took place at the end of the 2019- 20 school year and for most of the 2020-21 year. The achievement gap widened, and performance relative to prior years declined the most among disabled and minority students.

Fortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Monday.

“While this and other vaccines have met the FDA’s rigorous, scientific standards for emergency use authorization, as the first FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product,” Acting FDC Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said.

While employers may have been on shaky legal ground in issuing a true mandate prior to the vaccine receiving full FDA approval, that ambiguity is now gone. Various vaccines are required of school children before they enroll at all levels, including college. Vaccines are required throughout government and in the private sector. The COVID-19 vaccine should now be no different.

With a fully approved COVID-19 vaccine now available, it’s time for a true “get vaccinated or lose your job” mandate. There will undoubtedly be pushback from public employee unions over a true vaccine mandate like this, but city leaders need to have the courage to put the city’s children first.

Talking about equity is one thing. Putting the safety and learning of children first requires action. It’s time to remove the quotation marks from the existing COVID-19 vaccination “requirement” in Alexandria.