As Louisiana ramps up administering vaccines against the novel coronavirus, K-12 schools in the state are beginning to wrestle with how they can get as many of their employees vaccinated as possible.
Educators and other school personnel are part of the next priority group — Phase 1B, Tier 2 — for vaccination. But with supply of the vaccines remaining tight, school employees aren’t expected to be getting vaccinated en masse for several weeks yet.
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In the meantime, many school leaders are planning ahead to the extent that they can. They are figuring out, among other things, who will provide the vaccine, whether vaccinations will be done at school or at a medical facility, as well as identifying the employees who want them and who don’t.
What’s not being widely discussed is mandating school employees get vaccinated.
Just mentioning the idea of a mandate can prompt a strong reaction.
“We’re not going to force our employees to get vaccinated,” Wes Watts, superintendent of schools in West Baton Rouge Parish, said flatly.
“I don’t think we ever want to be in that place,” said Ken Campbell, executive of IDEA Louisiana Public Schools. “There’s something that doesn’t sit right with me about that.”
IDEA, which is based in Texas, operates three schools in Louisiana, two in Baton Rouge and one in New Orleans, and collectively they educate more than 2,100 children.
Instead, Campbell said he intends to lead by example.
“My plan is to be the first one there, get it done, get it on video and encourage everyone on our team to go and do it,” Campbell said.
Employers toying with the possibility of mandating COVID vaccines face an uncertain legal environment.
The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission issued guidance last month saying that employers can require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine, with exemptions for workers with certain medical conditions or religious beliefs.
However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to fully authorize the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Currently, they are approved only on an emergency basis. While that remains the case, individuals who receive the vaccine have the option to accept or refuse it.
That may complicate efforts by employers to enforce in-house mandates.
Some local school districts are hoping for guidance from state and federal authorities before advancing too far in their vaccination planning.
“We have put in several calls to the (Louisiana Department of Health) to get information, but none has as yet been provided,” said Delia Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Livingston Parish school system.
Gwynn Shamlin, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said he’s on the lookout for federal guidance from the incoming Biden administration.
“Many of us are expecting there will be some (federal) guidance,” Shamlin said.
Orleans Parish Public Schools, which has already done extensive planning for its upcoming vaccination campaign, is not planning to issue a mandate.
“The vaccine will not be mandatory for team members,” said Dr. Leron Finger with Children’s Hospital New Orleans, which has partnered with the Orleans Parish school district. “It’s going to be strongly encouraged.”
Polls show a nation divided when it comes to the new vaccines. In a November survey, about 60% said they would get the COVID-19 shots, up from 50% a month earlier, according to the Pew Research Center.
About 17% of educators said they were “very” unlikely to take the vaccine, and 12% said they were “somewhat” unlikely in a nationally representative online survey conducted in November by the EdWeek Research Center.
Hollis Milton, superintendent in West Feliciana Parish, said he’s already surveyed his 300-plus employees. Of those who have expressed a preference, he said it was split down the middle, with half wanting to be vaccinated and half against the idea. Many staff members, though, weren’t sure either way.
Milton suspects the undecided will come around as more and more people get vaccinated without issues.
“If someone doesn’t want it, that’s fine,” Miltons said. “But if any of our employees want it, I’m going to be as aggressive as I can in helping them get vaccinated.”
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Different districts are at different stages of planning.
For instance, in East Baton Rouge, school nurses are likely to administer the vaccine at school-based health centers, but also via mobile units supplied by local hospitals that will travel from school to school.
Across the river in West Baton Rouge, Superintendent Watts said he’s been focused on other COVID matters up until now.
“It’s probably something we’re going to look at in the next couple of weeks really closely,” Watt said.
“I don’t want to be responsible for calling a school and finding out if they want it,” he said “I want the list of people who want the vaccine.”
Employees who pass may end up waiting awhile, he warned.
“You’re rolling the dice, and you’re going to be put in the next tier along with everyone else,” Finger said.
While important, vaccinating school employees will not in and of itself allow schools to relax their many COVID restrictions.
First of all, schoolchildren won’t be vaccinated until a vaccine is approved for them — trials are under way for children aged 12 and above and more trials are planned for younger children.
Also, the virus may still be transmittable even for those vaccinated, an unanswered medical question.
Dr. Finger urges continued vigilance.
“Once you get vaccinated, your life doesn’t change at all. Everything that you’ve been doing, you’re going to continue to do,” Finger said. “It doesn’t give you free rein to go to a bar unmasked and cavort with other maskless people. I would strongly encourage that you continue to mask when you’re out in public, socially distance and hang out with your nuclear family. It’s not a green light to do whatever you want.”
Campbell, with IDEA, though, said he’s hoping a few more months of vigilance will pay off.
“Hopefully, we will have a critical mass of people vaccinated by the start of next (school) year along with some semblance of normalcy,” he said. “That would be phenomenal.”