City schools require staff to be vaccinated or face testing

Though masked and socially distant, more teachers and students began interacting in person again in March after about a year of mostly online learning. (File photo)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

After a debate regarding protection against the spread of Covid, city school board members voted at Tuesday’s meeting to require public school employees to be vaccinated, unless given a religious or medical exemption. 

The policy also requires those who take either exemption to submit to weekly testing, although Superintendent Michael Richards said specifics of that procedure haven’t been finalized.

The board approved the policy by a 4-2 vote, with board members Kaylene Seigle and Obie Hill opposing both the vaccine mandate and requirement for unvaccinated employees to submit to weekly testing.

“I’m not saying that I’m against vaccines, but I’m not in favor of mandating them,” Seigle said. “So my vote is no.”

Richards said “a very small fraction of our staff members” are still unvaccinated.

“We estimate maybe 10% or less,” Richards said.

Hill said requiring unvaccinated staff members who might have a preexisting medical condition or religious objection “places a heavy burden on them.”

Board member Nick Swayne said the alternative would be “potential death.”

“And I think doing as much as possible is our responsibility,” Swayne said.

But Hill said even as they sat in the auditorium at Skyline Middle School with noses and mouths covered, “we don’t know who has been vaccinated or not.”

“But yet we’re managing very well,” Hill said. “I think to have our [unvaccinated] staff tested every single week…I think that’s a lot to ask for.”

Both Hill and board member Deb Fitzgerald expressed concerns about covering the cost of weekly testing. Kristen Loflin, the board chairwoman, said she spoke with the school district’s pediatrician who confirmed the federal government would cover the testing cost, similar to the vaccine.

Richards said the chief priority was keeping students and teachers healthy and in classrooms. 

“Vaccination is a very, very well-documented way of reducing the potential that we would have to close portions of the school and reducing the threat to our students, our staff and our community,” he said. 

He also referenced the four layers of protection against the spread of the virus, with vaccination being the first, followed by masks, social distancing, and hygiene.

“You need all the layers,” Richards said. “We need to enhance each of them. So if I can require vaccination and a regiment of testing that shows that we have a healthy staff population, we’re reducing risk for students and staff considerably.”

Swayne also said what’s being required of school employees is no different than what state employees at institutions like James Madison University and Blue Ridge Community College are being asked to do. Earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam required all state employees to show proof of vaccination or face testing. 

“The state school division of Richmond, Charlottesville, Albemarle and many more that you see will be mandating vaccines, and I think it’s the right thing to do,” Richards said.

Hill reminded board members that they have the “authority and the power to do otherwise.”

“We do not have to follow everyone else,” Hill said. “We can do something different, we can think about our staff members who have not been vaccinated.”

During the public comment period, one 15-year veteran teacher said she was surprised by the board’s decision.

“I’m really shocked with us being at such a high percentage [of vaccination], though we don’t know the exact number at this moment, we just agreed upon putting colleagues in this position right now,” Samantha said.

Strategic plan gets official approval

The board also unanimously approved the five-year strategic plan presented at the last meeting. Part of that includes reviewing each year the district’s “Inclusivity Statement,” which board member Andy Kohen pointed out was a school board statement. He said that it should be made to embrace all of HCPS.

“That is our intention,” Richards said. “It’s part of our work now, it’s part of our overall mission for the next five years. We’ve woven it in.”

Hill said he’s been collaborating with others on the inclusivity statement.

“It seems that the team has arrived on a final version,” he said. “So it would be great for you guys to see it once they get it over to us.”

Richards said that it would be “sooner rather than later in the fall.”

Fitzgerald also asked about the measurability of some of the specific items underneath each of the overall goals of the plan.

“Some of them are already [quantifiable], like open HHS2,” Fitzgerald said. “That one we can figure out all by ourselves. But other ones are kind of mysterious as stated in the plan itself, like ‘ensure all learning spaces facilitate student learning, development, and growth’ so I’ll be curious to see how that one gets laid out.”

Richards clarified that there will be an audit of each of the larger goals to determine a baseline for how each can be accomplished over the next five years, followed by continual updates and revisions.

The board also took a look at a 3D architect’s rendering of the interior of the new high school, which was met with applause from board members and people in the audience. 

Richards said the next steps during September and October work sessions would include drafting the process to name the school. District staff will also work on a recommendation for setting the geographic boundaries to decide who will go to the new school.

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