By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
The School Board passed a mandate at its Sept. 23 meeting that requires staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccine barring medical or religious exemptions. It also approved the requirement that student athletes participating in winter and spring sports provide proof of vaccination in order to train.
Staff must provide documentation of their completed COVID-19 vaccination status by Nov. 15. Those who fail to do so may be fired or required to take leave without pay.
Employees who “satisfactorily” establish valid medical or religious exemptions will have to participate in weekly testing, but staff did not specify what constitutes a satisfactory exemption.
According to Alexandria City Public Schools staff, 2,225 ACPS employees are fully vaccinated. In a decrease from the 422 found in initial surveys, 362 staff members receive required weekly COVID-19 testing. Of that number, 15 are administrators, 138 are licensed staff and 209 are support staff, making up 14% of the total employee population, according to ACPS.
Staff predicted that possible impacts of the newly approved mandate could include a decrease in administrators, licensed staff and support staff. This, in turn, could lead to an increase in class sizes, as well as bus delivery, pickup and meal service preparation delays, and potential reduction of cleaning efforts.
Dr. Melanie Kay-Wyatt, executive director of Human Resources for ACPS, said this prediction comes from the fact that a number of these staff members are student-facing.
“It’s really hard to determine because you’ve indicated there may be a staff member who sits behind a counter, but that staff member is in the building and while there may not be that direct contact one-on-one sitting in a classroom, there may be times where they have to interface with other staff members who are going into classrooms,” Kay-Wyatt said.
Board member Margaret Lorber asked how many staffers are not vaccinated for religious or medical reasons, calling the potential loss of personnel “kind of scary.”
“That assumes people are going to decide, ‘Well, no, I don’t want to be even though I don’t have a religious reason or a health reason,’” Lorber said. “So, it would be helpful to know what percentage of that group actually have either a health reason or religious reason so we know how many people we’re talking about.”
Kay-Wyatt did not disclose a specific number to protect the privacy of certain staffers, but said it is “very small.” She also said the number of staffers who remain unvaccinated without a valid medical or religious basis is “pretty high,” but pointed out that many of them do not regularly interact with students.
Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. noted that this amount might decrease, since the initial vaccination status surveys offered an option to not disclose medical or religious rationale for abstaining. Now, because that option is no longer available, he predicted that more staff will come forward with valid conditions.
“That’s a new thing. … [Religion and medical conditions] are things you’re not supposed to discuss in school, and now we’re saying that’s something they need to share with us to be exempt,” Hutchings said. “ … I think that data will be a lot more telling than the current data we have because right now we’re basing it off of what-ifs and we don’t really have specifics.”
Regardless, there will likely still be staff members who do not qualify for either exemption yet refuse to get vaccinated. The board addressed this possible outcome, noting that it is important to start preparing in advance for the loss of personnel. Board member Christopher Suarez highlighted that while these employees may have decided to forego receiving a vaccination due to understandable reasons like societal historical inequity, the fact that many will still be interacting with students on some level must take precedence.
“There are many, many reasons people might not get vaccinated and that’s why it’s so hard to have this conversation, but with that being said, it is a public health issue and so we need to balance all these things,” Suarez said. “It creates some difficult conversations.”
Board member Ramee Gentry made a motion to approve the staff recommendation, with Suarez seconding. The resolution was passed unanimously, 8-0. Board member Cindy Anderson was not present at the meeting.
The board also unanimously passed a resolution requiring proof of vaccination for students participating in all Virginia High School League sports, with Gentry making the motion and Lorber seconding.
Beginning Nov. 8, all ACPS students participating in winter and spring sports will have to require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination for winter and spring sports, from conditioning to competing.
The resolution follows a COVID-19 outbreak among sports teams in the spring that interrupted certain seasons with quarantine and cancellations.
ACPS joins Fairfax and Arlington counties in requiring vaccination of student athletes. Fairfax County approved a mandate on Aug. 30 and Arlington County on Sept. 10.
Board members agreed on the necessity of such a resolution and debated how much further it should be taken.
Suarez asked about the rationale behind proposing a vaccination mandate for student athletes but not for the general student population.
More than 70% of students ages 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated, and approximately 78% of students ages 16 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to staff.
“I do think we need to have the conversation about all students,” Suarez said, expressing concern for young children who remain unvaccinated. “I want to make sure we get out in front of that and just think about what our longer-term vision is in terms of vaccination.”
Hutchings said one of the major reasons for requiring athletes to be vaccinated is because winter sports take place indoors.
“Athletes are not wearing masks; they are contact sports, meaning that you don’t have all the other health and safety mitigations we do on a typical school day,” Hutchings said. “A lot of the teams for particular sports are not able to wear masks at particular times during their practice or actual games, so we wanted to ensure that we’re providing the safest environment possible.”
Alexandria Health Department Director Dr. Anne Gaddy added that sports teams across the region and country tend to be a source of COVID-19 outbreaks. According to Gaddy, this may be due to the amount of close contact involved in the nature of certain sports or the socialization that goes along with athletic teams.
“It’s something that’s been observed last year and even over the summer as people were starting to get vaccinated, we were still seeing that as one of the major contributors to outbreaks so that’s part of the reason that population of students is particularly focused on,” Gaddy said.