The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those 16 and older, announced Monday, is expected to pave the way for more vaccine mandates, including for teachers. But there are still many logistics to work out, including what happens to the teachers who refuse to get a shot.
So far, Oregon and Washington state have ordered teachers to get fully vaccinated or face discipline, which could include termination. A handful of school districts, including Chicago and Los Angeles, have imposed similar mandates. California, Connecticut, New Mexico, New Jersey, and Hawaii—as well as several more school districts, including Washington, D.C.—have given teachers the choice between getting vaccinated or undergoing regular testing.
The New York City district, the largest in the nation, initially gave teachers the option to do weekly COVID-19 testing instead of getting vaccinated, but is implementing a full vaccine mandate now that Pfizer’s shot is FDA-approved.
Those in favor of vaccine mandates for teachers say that a high vaccination rate among staff is critical to keeping schools open for in-person instruction and protecting students, especially those younger than 12 who can’t yet get the shot. Some public health experts say that since only a small portion of staff would likely choose to get tested once a week in lieu of getting vaccinated, the vaccinate-or-test strategy can be effective in keeping schools safe.
But other experts say that a full vaccine mandate is safer than allowing the testing alternative since a test only represents a moment in time. “With every day that goes by that you’re not testing someone who’s not vaccinated, you run the risk of them becoming infected and contagious on that day,” said Dr. Shira Doron, the hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.
School districts often have to get the support of their teachers’ unions before putting in place these requirements. The national teachers’ unions have only gone as far as supporting directives for teachers to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing. And some local unions have resisted policies where teachers would lose their jobs if they don’t get the shot.
“If you have so much fear [of the vaccine] that you’re willing to risk your life, at this point, I’m not to the point where you should be terminated,” said Julie Sellers, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.
The Cincinnati school board has debated requiring the vaccine for staff but tabled the discussion earlier this summer. In July, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed a law that prohibits schools from requiring any vaccines that have not yet received full FDA approval. (The Pfizer vaccine is currently the only vaccine with full approval; regulators are reviewing Moderna’s application and Johnson & Johnson is expected to apply for full approval later this year.)
Sellers said she expects the board to revisit the mandate now that there is a fully approved vaccine available. But she would rather see the school district offer financial incentives, as well as extra sick leave, for employees to get inoculated. Dismissing teachers who don’t get vaccinated could lead to lawsuits for the district, she said. Already, Sellers said, about 85 percent of union members are vaccinated, and more likely will get the vaccine as the Delta variant continues to spread.
Nationally, 87 percent of teachers are already vaccinated. Just 11 percent of teachers have said they don’t intend to get the shot, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey that was conducted in late July and early August. That data have been harder to get on a state or sometimes even local level, although the wave of vaccine mandates will provide more information in the coming weeks and months.
Some districts have clashed with their unions
The FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine—along with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Aug. 12 decision to not block Indiana University’s vaccine mandate—has provided legal cover for states and districts to require their staff to get vaccinated, and more mandates will likely come soon, said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Teachers’ unions may soon become more receptive to vaccine mandates that aren’t paired with a testing alternative, he said.
But unions will still want to retain their power during bargaining, including over issues like who will pay for the testing and what dismissal procedures will look like, he said.
“The implementation of [these policies] will still be a locally bargained issue, whether or not there’s a state mandate in place,” Marianno said.
Earlier this month, Hawaii Gov. David Ige ordered teachers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or submit regular test results. The Hawaii State Teachers Association, along with other public employee unions, demanded to be able to bargain over the implementation details. (Hawaii has a single statewide school district, so the state teachers’ union bargains on behalf of all public school teachers.)
“We had no heads-up what the plans were, and when they [announced] their plans, there were a lot of questions that were unanswered,” said HSTA President Osa Tui, Jr. “We did not appreciate that they just laid it down without any discussions with us.”
For instance, Tui said, some teachers—especially those in more rural or remote areas of the islands—will have difficulties accessing free testing and may have to pay for it. Some of the state’s free testing sites are only available during the work day or are very busy, which could require teachers to stand in line for hours. And it wasn’t clear what schools’ contingency plans should be if staff weren’t fully vaccinated by the initial deadline of Aug. 16 and hadn’t been able to secure testing.
In response to some of these questions, the governor pushed back the vaccine-or-test deadline to Aug. 30.
Meanwhile, in Richmond, Va., the school board voted 8-1 last week to require all school staff to get vaccinated by Oct. 1. Superintendent Jason Kamras said in an interview that the district had first tried to educate the staff about the safety of the vaccines—including by soliciting the help of trusted community members, such as faith leaders—but a significant portion of the staff remained hesitant. Kamras noted that the majority of educators in Richmond are people of color, who are less likely than their white counterparts to be vaccinated due in part to access issues and a long-standing distrust of the medical field.
While Kamras doesn’t know the percentage of school staff who are vaccinated, just over half of eligible adults in Richmond are vaccinated. Requiring the vaccine will help the district keep kids in school buildings this year, he said. Richmond was the last in Virginia to open its doors for in-person instruction last year.
If a teacher doesn’t get vaccinated by October, they’ll receive a letter of notice warning that they have not complied with the mandate and must do so by a certain date, Kamras said. If they don’t get vaccinated after that, they will be placed on unpaid leave. And if they still refuse to get the shot, they will lose their job.
The district’s local teachers’ union, the Richmond Education Association, supports the vaccine mandate—but not the progressive disciplinary actions that stem from not getting the shot, said Katina Harris, the president of the local union. Teachers want to be in school, she said, and the district should be working with those who are unvaccinated instead of threatening termination.
“There are many reasons why members may not want to be vaccinated, and we want to respect their individuality and their choices,” she said, adding that weekly testing would be a good alternative if a teacher chooses not to get vaccinated.
But Kamras said the district will hold firm on the mandate with no testing alternative, adding that “the most effective way to stem the tide of the Delta variant is vaccination.”
“I hope and pray that it doesn’t result in any disciplinary actions, let alone termination,” he said. “I think our teachers and staff will rise to the occasion and do what we need to do on behalf of the students and community.”
So far, he said, the “overwhelming majority” of people who have reached out to him with concerns are those who say they can’t get the vaccine for medical reasons. And the district will accept any medical or religious exemptions that are signed off on by a physician or faith leader, Kamras said. Those educators will have to be tested weekly.
The COVID-19 vaccines are safe for almost everyone, said Doron, the epidemiologist at Tufts. Since there are three available vaccines with different ingredients and designs, “medical exemptions should really be few and far between,” she said.
Districts need to figure out how to handle refusal
Elsewhere, teachers’ unions have accepted the use of disciplinary actions for those who won’t get the shot. Eric Trawdell, the superintendent of the Adlai E. Stevenson school district in Lincolnshire, Ill., said the labor groups representing both faculty and support staff were supportive of the district’s vaccine mandate as long as the district follows proper protocols for offering medical and religious exemptions. All school staff, who work full time or part time, must be vaccinated by Oct. 15.
Already, 95 percent of the district’s staff has been vaccinated, Trawdell said. The mandate is the final push to get to a fully inoculated staff, except for those who qualify for exemptions.
“We will have some folks who just feel very strongly that they don’t want to get vaccinated and will make a choice to move on,” he said. “I don’t think there will be very many—there may be some, which would be unfortunate. To us, it’s just so important that our adults who are working in a school with kids [are vaccinated]. We’re doing everything we can to make our school community [safe].”
In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers supported the city’s decision on Monday to remove the testing option. But what happens to teachers who refuse to get vaccinated is still to be determined.
“While the city is asserting its legal authority to establish this mandate, there are many implementation details, including provisions for medical exceptions, that by law must be negotiated with the UFT and other unions, and if necessary, resolved by arbitration,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.
There are some vocal members who are resistant to the mandate. A union caucus called NY Teachers for Choice has threatened legal action.
But for most vaccine-hesitant people, a mandate by their employer will be one of the only reasons why they will get the vaccine at this point, said Rupali Limaye, an associate scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies vaccine hesitancy. The other main reason would be if they have a family member or close friend come down with a severe case of COVID-19 and witness the dangers of the virus firsthand, she said.
And when schools have high vaccination rates, they may be able to safely drop mask requirements, Doron said.
Seeing teachers’ unions get on board with requirements has been heartening, Limaye said: “The best approach to protect children who are too young to be vaccinated is for all adults around them to be vaccinated.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2021 edition of Education Week as With Vaccine Mandates on the Rise, Some Teachers May Face Discipline