Most front-line educators are already vaccinated against COVID-19, but toothless mandates and murky data have stalled school districts’ progress toward a fully vaccinated staff.
While vaccine requirements have moved the needle in terms of getting more shots in arms, many districts are now backing off their initial plans to dole out consequences—ranging from docking pay to termination—to those who refuse to get vaccinated. While public health experts say that vaccines are an important component of keeping schools safe and avoiding quarantine disruptions, district leaders are contending with logistical and operational challenges, too, as they work to keep classrooms staffed.
“As school districts struggle to fill full-time positions and struggle to find substitutes, it’s really, really difficult to move forward with a vaccine mandate that would end up terminating teachers,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey administered in September found that 27 percent of principals and district leaders said their districts have a vaccine-or-test rule in place, while 63 percent said vaccines will not be required of employees. Just 3 percent said unvaccinated employees cannot work for their schools or districts.
Adding to the complicated rollout of mandates: There’s little data available about how many school staff members are vaccinated, and how successful vaccine rules have been so far. National survey data, including from the EdWeek Research Center, estimate that about 90 percent of teachers have gotten the vaccine, but school staff vaccination rates are likely lower.
Oregon, Washington state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have ordered all school staff to get vaccinated, while eight additional states have said educators must either get vaccinated or undergo regular testing. Yet an EdWeek analysis found that only four states with such mandates—Connecticut, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Washington—have shared the overall percentage of district employees who are vaccinated, along with D.C. and Puerto Rico. (On Nov. 23, a day after the publication of this story, New Jersey also released the vaccination rate for school employees.)
Delaware said its educator vaccination rate will be released in the coming weeks, but most other states are either not collecting the data or not making it publicly available.
“In general, data is just hard to come by this entire pandemic,” said Bree Dusseault, a principal at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a University of Washington research group that is analyzing district responses to the pandemic, including their vaccine policies. “This is another area where families and kids are operating in the dark—and staff members, too.”
A lack of data makes it hard to monitor progress
States like California, New York, and Oregon told Education Week that their health departments are not collecting vaccination data from districts. New York, for instance, considers its rule to be a school staff testing policy rather than a staff vaccine mandate, so the health department is focused on tracking positive cases.
Two states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have ordered all school staff to get vaccinated. Another eight states have said school staff must get vaccinated or undergo regular testing. As of Nov. 23, five of these states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, have reported their vaccination rates.
- PUERTO RICO – 98%
- CONNECTICUT – 93%
- HAWAII* – 89%
- WASHINGTON – 89%
- NEW JERSEY – 84.9%
- WASHINGTON, D.C.* – 84%
- NEW MEXICO – 79%
STATE-LEVEL DATA ARE UNAVAILABLE:
- NEW YORK
*Percentages include partially vaccinated staff
**Plan to release vaccination rates in the coming weeks
Yet the lack of transparency makes it difficult to monitor the progress of teacher vaccination efforts. Also, districts are often not publicly reporting their staff vaccination rates either.
CRPE surveyed 100 school districts across the country and found that only 14 shared vaccination data publicly. When the information was available, it was usually a district-level average, rather than school-level data, which would be more useful for parents who are curious about the number of unvaccinated adults interacting with their children.
“Districts have learned that these issues can become polarizing and politicized, and may be wary of sharing data that could prompt such pushback,” Dusseault said.
The limited data available do show that in places with a strict vaccine mandate, significant progress has been made, though many educators have requested exemptions.
Washington state has reported that 89 percent of school district employees are fully vaccinated. School staff were required to be vaccinated by Oct. 18. Most of the remaining unvaccinated staff—nearly 10 percent—obtained a religious exemption.
Fewer than 500 district employees, including 188 classroom staff, remained unvaccinated without obtaining a religious or a medical exemption. A state education department spokeswoman said those employees have left their positions, either through resignation, retirement, or termination.
Washington, D.C., which ordered all school staff to get vaccinated by Nov. 1, has reported that 84 percent of district employees have received at least one shot. About 400 staff members have exemption requests pending. (A dozen employees had their exemption requests denied.)
The Denver school district said 99.1 percent of employees were either vaccinated or had obtained a medical or religious exemption, and the vast majority have gotten the shot. Just 108 employees remain out of compliance and could lose their jobs on Jan. 2.
And a Los Angeles Unified spokesperson said in an email that as of Oct. 18, there were about 1,500 accommodation requests pending, with more requests coming daily. Most of those—more than 1,300—were religious exemption requests. The district has assigned at least 600 employees to remote work and is attempting to accommodate the rest with remote work or a leave of absence.
“Although we are committed to working closely with our employees to find an available reasonable accommodation, some may not be able to be accommodated due to the nature of their position, required job duties, and the operational needs of the district in servicing our student population,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico, which required its school staff to get vaccinated by the start of classes, boasts a 98 percent vaccination rate.
Many districts are watering down requirements
Other school districts are delaying enforcing their mandates or relaxing them altogether due to staff shortages and, in some cases, opposition from teachers’ unions.
Days before the vaccination deadline was set to occur, the Chicago Teachers Union wrote a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot arguing that educators of color are most likely to be unvaccinated, and barring them from work would not take into account historic inequities and a lack of access to medical care and reliable information about the vaccine. The city ultimately agreed to let unvaccinated employees take a weekly COVID-19 test instead. About 10 percent of employees are still unvaccinated.
Also, firing teachers would further dampen staff morale during a challenging and exhausting year, Dusseault said. Many districts are offering vaccine incentives instead of consequences, she noted.
“I think districts are just trying to keep a pulse on their staff and not break the camel’s back,” Dusseault said. “They’re trying to balance that with keeping schools and kids safe.”
Still, the decision to reverse a mandate can come with its own angst. For example, the Richmond, Va., school board voted 6-3 to stop enforcing consequences for those who are unvaccinated, citing a growing number of teachers who were resigning rather than getting the shot. The decision was opposed by Superintendent Jason Kamras, who said that the mandate with progressive disciplinary actions, culminating in termination, was put in place to keep all students and staff safe.
Staff vaccination rates went from 37 percent to 92 percent since the mandate was put in place in August, and Kamras said he thinks the district would have eventually gotten close to 100 percent with the disciplinary action in place. Instead, unvaccinated employees will now have to be tested for COVID-19 once a week, and anyone who lost pay because of their unwillingness to get the shot will be reimbursed.
And although the vaccine mandate is technically still on the books, “a mandate isn’t a mandate without consequences—it’s a strong request,” Kamras said in an interview. “Though there are certainly staffing challenges, with the winter coming and still a significant percentage of adults and children in Richmond who are not vaccinated, now is not the time to take our foot off the gas.”
Many teachers in the district were anxious about getting the shot, Kamras said, but they ultimately were glad they did so. The board’s decision has been frustrating for many of them, who may feel like their effort was all for naught if others remain unvaccinated, he said.
“I think it’s important that we stand by our word,” Kamras said. “The next time, God forbid, we have a mandate, I’m not sure it will have the same effect” if teachers think it will eventually be walked back.
It’s not yet clear whether there will be more of an appetite among administrators in the coming semester to reinforce vaccine mandates for staff. The Biden administration has issued a vaccine-or-test rule that would have applied to most school staff in 26 states, but that has been blocked by a federal court.
Yet student vaccination requirements may pose a curveball, Marianno said. Virtually all school-aged children are now eligible for the vaccine, and if teachers’ unions begin to push for schools to require the shots, they will have to advocate that all teachers be required to get the vaccine, too.
“They’re going to get damaged in the court of public opinion if they come out and say, ‘Students should get vaccinated against COVID-19, but we’re not supporting it for teachers,’” Marianno said. “I think it’s an untenable situation for them.”
Holly Peele, Library Director and Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.