School board gets pushback over vaccinations, as well as policy regarding transgender students

Correction — An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the school board went into closed session Tuesday night to review personnel resignations. The article was updated to include a statement Wednesday from Superintendent Michael Richards that said none of the nine resignations had to do with the vaccine protocol the board passed last month.

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Nine Harrisonburg City Public Schools employees resigned since classes started last month — a number that caught school board members’ attention Tuesday night. 

At least one board member, Obie Hill, expressed concern that those resignations could be related to the vaccine requirement the board approved at its Aug. 17 meeting.

Superintendent Michael Richards issued a statement to media outlets Wednesday saying that while he couldn’t say why specific employees resigned, he could confirm none resigned because of the district’s vaccination protocol.

“Virginia law prohibits me from discussing publicly the reasons why an individual employee has chosen to resign,” Richards said in the statement. “The school board is similarly prohibited from discussing such matters in an open meeting and did not do so last night. However, I can make a blanket statement that none of the nine resigning employees listed the recent covid vaccine/testing protocol as a reason for their resignation.”

The vaccine requirement protocol and mandatory covid testing for unvaccinated school staff also prompted passionate arguments from educators, staff and parents during the meeting’s public comment period, as did the recent adoption of a model policy from the Virginia School Board Association regarding treatment of transgender students.

Opponents of the vaccine mandate for city school staff said they felt they were being discriminated against because they are required to submit to weekly testing, while those vaccinated are not.  Several cited anecdotal situations in which the vaccine did not prevent transmission of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control announced in June that studies show certain vaccines reduce the risk of infection by 91% but doesn’t eliminate the possibility that a vaccinated person could get or transmit the virus. Still, fully vaccinated people made up less than 5% of people hospitalized for covid across 40 states, according to a New York Times analysis last month

Harrisonburg high school truancy secretary Ellen Hopkins said she was willing to continue masking and isolating as required, but that she did “not want [the vaccine] to be forced on me, that I either have to be vaccinated, which I will not do against my good health protocol.”

“And the weekly testing makes me feel like a second-class citizen,” Hopkins said.

Others expressed concern with how quickly the board implemented the mandate last month and urged board members to consider in its blanket policy making how information about the vaccines’ effectiveness is continually updated — including the CDC’s recommendations regarding vaccine booster shot.

Richards said at Tuesday’s meeting that because school officials “rely very heavily on the (Virginia) Department of Health and the CDC” in a public health emergency, like the covid pandemic, and had to move swiftly on those agencies’ advice amid the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant over the last two months. 

He added that research shows that vaccinated individuals can only transmit the virus in the case of a breakthrough infection, “which is very rare.”

“So we look at that and we say, ‘We’ve got a limited amount of time, we’ve got to put together a protocol that keeps people safe,’” Richards said. “We want to respect staff, we don’t mean to insult staff when we say that we would test those unvaccinated.”

One speaker, Omar Anthony, pointed out that because vaccinated individuals can be positive for covid, there were some inconsistencies with how the testing strategy is being implemented.

“They admit that the vaccine doesn’t stop you from getting it or spreading it, but why is it then that only the unvaccinated are being tested?” Anthony said. “It does come across as discriminatory when the facts show that everyone could potentially get it and everyone could spread it and it’s the students’ rights to know.”

He agreed the district needs another layer of testing for everyone, but they couldn’t guarantee that when the recommendation was put forward for the requirement for vaccination or testing. He also mentioned they met with the state this morning to discuss how they could broaden testing to include all staff.

Update of anti-discrmination policy attracts comments

Several parents also expressed concern over the recently adopted model policy that focuses on how transgender students are treated in regards to their gender identity and how it relates to their preferred name and/or bathroom.

Carolyn Poirot, an instructional assistant  at Keister Elementary, said she’s become aware of a “quiet trend to train staff to teach children that they can choose their gender identity and change their mind from day to day.” She did not say who is training the staff to do so. 

Poirot said she believes the topic of gender identity “belongs at home.”

“Many of these staff are also being told not to discuss with parents any child who chooses the opposite gender identity,” she said. “As a matter of fact, they’re being told not to tell the truth to those parents.”

Richards said the model policy does not tell educators to not communicate with students’ families regarding gender identity, but rather to be careful in how they do. 

“In some cases, you need to be very careful with the way you communicate with parents, because in some cases homelessness and abuse can happen,” Richards said.

He said the district administration staff will bring a proposed item to the school board that spells out additional details about the policy’s implementation and effects.

Abby Huffman, a parent of a student at Thomas Harrison Middle School and an educator in a different district, urged the board not to adopt certain parts of the model policy.

“We think that the policies put forth, with regard to the transgender policy, may harm some students,” Huffman said.  For instance, she said that as a parent, she’s not comfortable with someone born with male genitalia using the same school locker room as her daughter.

Several parents also spoke out in support of transgender students and noted that students are protected from discrimination under federal law, through Title IX.

Some parents also expressed gratitude for the work school board members have done to create conditions for students to return to school this fall.

Clay Phillips, a father of a student at Smithland Elementary, thanked the board for “taking such exceptional care with the students of our district.”

“We recognize that solutions that work for one group of people often increase stresses for others,” Phillips said. “Life is so rarely one size fits all.”

The board meets again Sept. 21 for a work session. 

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