By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Alexandria City Public Schools staff members must receive the COVID-19 vaccine or undergo weekly testing this upcoming year, after the School Board decided on such measures in a split vote at a special called meeting on Aug. 19.
Employees will have to submit proof of vaccination by Aug. 27 and mandatory testing of unvaccinated employees will begin on Aug. 30.
The vaccine mandate came just five days before the Aug. 24 in-person start of the 2021-2022 school year, and while the general decision was agreed upon, the specifics of the timeline created a sharp divide among the board, pushing the final decision to about 10:30 p.m.
Initially, ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. recommended Sept. 7 as the deadline for staff to submit proof of vaccination and Sept. 20 as the start date for weekly testing. However, board member Christopher Suarez expressed concerns about the dates that subsequently prompted several rounds of amendments and a lengthy discussion among board members about how the district could feasibly implement a robust system while also proceeding in a way that addresses safety concerns.
Suarez advocated for earlier dates by expediting the results of a previously sent staff survey to gain a more complete sense of who is vaccinated. According to ACPS, 62% of staff voluntarily reported receiving vaccines as of May 2021.
Suarez proposed that those who do not report back within the next few days should get tested the first week of school.
“It’s not a perfect science; it’s not going to be as robust as the Sept. 20 implementation, but to me, at the point we can even detect one or two cases that we might not have otherwise detected, why don’t we give that a try,” Suarez said. “ … If [Sept. 20] is the first data point of testing we have, that’s two weeks where there are possible cases we could have detected.”
Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School, which began classes on Aug. 9., already reported one positive case of COVID-19, according to ACPS.
Hutchings, in response, said that the recommendation stems from a desire to establish specific logistics that ensure efficacy of the data-collection system. The Sept. 20 date would allow staff to more effectively undergo the processes of procurement, training and examining the database for who has been vaccinated and tested.
“These are all the data points we’re going to have to make the informed decisions that are going to need to occur,” Hutchings said. “I don’t think that it is unreasonable for us to have the time to be able to procure the appropriate third party vendors to get the systems in place in regards to training and to upload this information so we can have accurate data in regards to this matter.”
“We’re talking about thousands of people that we’re trying to collect this information for and we’ve got to have the appropriate systems in order for that to work effectively,” Hutchings added. “The sense of urgency for us is there. It is there.”
Board member Ramee Gentry noted that staff would not be able to provide data along with the Aug. 30 date.
“All we could do from tonight is say, ‘We’re requiring all this data to do it.’ It would be a motion with no teeth because we would not have the ability to actually provide any accountability with it,” Gentry said.
Gentry also pointed out that conversations about vaccine requirements are new, with President Joe Biden announcing a vaccine mandate for federal workers on July 29 and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam following suit for state workers on Aug. 5.
The conversation kept circling back to the possibility of an accelerated timetable, which Suarez maintained would not be a “knee jerk reaction” but rather a way to proactively increase safety mitigations and provide reassurance among the community.
“I think something can be done, and the data shows that the vaccine is the only mitigation that is truly robust that’s really weeding out a lot of these infections, especially with the Delta variant,” Suarez said. “ … I view this as being methodical – methodically looking at the data, looking at the situation we’re in, and trying to think of the best possible solution under these very difficult circumstances.”
Ultimately, Suarez’s Aug. 27 and Aug. 30 proposal was approved in a narrow 5-4 vote, with board members Gentry, Veronica Nolan, Chair Meagan Alderton and Heather Thornton dissenting.
Gentry proposed an amendment that directed staff to “provide updates to the board should any adjustments be anticipated,” which passed unanimously.