Mandatory COVID vaccine for teachers called possible The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Mandatory COVID vaccine for teachers called possible

January 3rd, 2021 Mesa Tribune Staff
Mandatory COVID vaccine for teachers called possible

Tribune News Staff

As teachers inch toward the head of the line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, it begs the question: can school districts mandate inoculations?

According to the Arizona School Risk Retention Trust, yes.

“School districts may require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of on-site work, subject to exemptions required by state and/or federal law,” reads a legal memo prepared for the nonprofit Trust.

The Trust, which provides more than 250 public school districts and community colleges with property and liability insurance, also advised districts to consult with their own attorneys on legal issues related to any vaccination requirement.

The issue could very well come up in Mesa Public Schools since Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson is a Trust board member.

The district was closed for winter break last week and did not respond to a request for comment.

But even though board member Marcie Hutchinson said she has not seen the memo, the retired 26-year history teacher in three MPS high schools, thinks the Trust is making  a good point.

“We’ve always got to be thinking about public health with public education and I think I’d be strongly in favor of the inoculation of our employees just to keep our staff safe,” Hutchinson told the Tribune, agreeing that   legitimate exemptions would be needed.

The first batches of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines arrived to Arizona in mid-December for dosing to those 16 and older.

Healthcare workers and long-term care facility staff and residents are among the first to receive the vaccine, to be followed by teachers, law enforcement and other critical workers. Other groups of individuals are farther down the line.

Sheila Uggetti, who sits on the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board, said whether to make the vaccination mandatory for teachers has not been discussed at any level in the district and spokeswoman Dawn Antestenis said GPS at this time has no plans to make it mandatory for staff.

“As with many issues going on right now, we are being asked to make decisions that I believe should be coming from the experts,” Uggetti said. “I am anxious to personally be able to get the vaccine.”

That said, Uggetti added, “I believe that we should follow whatever is required by the department of health.”

Any guidance from health officials, however, may be a long time coming.

Maricopa County spokesman Ron Coleman said the issue isn’t on the agenda any time soon for the Board of Supervisors to consider. School districts generally have been following state and county COVID-19 health guidelines.

All Mesa students are slated to begin the new semester this week with two weeks of learning at home and MPS Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis last month said she expected in-class learning to resume Jan. 19.

All three metrics for virus spread that comprise state and county health guidelines show substantial COVID-19 spread in Mesa, which would warrant online learning.

Coleman noted that when it would come to an inoculation mandate for staff, district officials probably would be making the call.

“Local school boards generally have governing jurisdiction over their schools,” said Coleman, adding the county is following guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Spokeswoman Heidi Vega of the Arizona School Boards Association agreed that it is up to individual districts to decide.

“We believe currently it is a local district decision whether to require teachers and/or staff be vaccinated as a condition of working, so long as exceptions are made for medical reasons and accommodations under the ADA,” Vega said.

“We would represent the interests of ASBA at the Legislature to keep this local authority,” she added.

School districts that choose to require mandatory vaccinations must first create a process where employees can apply for an exemption based on an ADA disability or a sincerely held religious belief, barring undue hardship to a district, according to the memo.

Exemptions make sense, Hutchinson said, noting students are required to get certain types of vaccinations but their parents can seek exemptions for religious, medical or other reasons.

Hutchinson also said she would think many teachers would have no problem with a mandate.

“I think we can make reasonable accommodations but I also think that if we have the vaccine … they are willing to risk their life in order to teach kids personally,” she said.

“I think a lot of teachers would be very willing,” Hutchinson added, noting teachers already must submit to fingerprinting and background checks just to get their job.

  If a district cannot exempt an employee or there are no possible reasonable accommodations – such as working from home for those who claim a disability or religious belief – “it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace,” the Trust advises.

However, “this doesn’t mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker,” the memo stated. “Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the Equal Employment Opportunity laws or other federal, state and local authorities.”

The Trust’s December memo also weighed in on mandatory vaccination for students, advising that school districts should first seek guidance from the Arizona Department of Health Services before moving forward on that. 

“It is unclear whether a school district may require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 without specific authorization from ADHS or a local health department,” the memo said.

“State law indicates that ADHS, in conjunction with the superintendent of public instruction, is responsible for developing documentary proof standards for evidence of vaccination.”

The memo also noted that at this time, the state health department has indicated there were no plans to revise the regulations regarding required immunizations for students.

And because none of the available vaccines are approved for children 16 and younger, it may be some time before schools would need to consider whether to require all students to be immunized, according to the memo.

Asked if the state Health Services Department will make a COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for students once a vaccine becomes available for them, spokeswoman Holly Poynter said her department “will continue to monitor the recommendations issued by the (CDC’s) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices as the data is updated.”

The Arizona Department of Education for now has no position on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for students like for measles and mumps before enrolling in school, according to spokesman Richie Taylor.

“To my knowledge, the vaccines being administered now have not been approved for use in children,” he said, adding that the department will await guidance from health officials.

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