Many Vermont school districts hold off on Covid vaccine mandates for staff | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children | #schools


Christine Soychak, who works at the local high school, performs a rapid antigen Covid-19 test on student Aiden Pothier, age 10, at the Enosburgh Public Safety Building on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. The testing is part of the state of Vermont’s “Test to Stay” program, where rapid antigen tests are given to unvaccinated students and staff who are close contacts of a positive covid-19 case. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In mid-September, amid climbing Covid-19 case rates in classrooms, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott urged school districts to require vaccinations for staff. 

Earlier that month, Scott had expanded a vaccine mandate — requiring employees to either show proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing — to include all of Vermont’s executive branch staff. State employees working in prisons, the Vermont Veterans’ Home and the psychiatric hospital had already been under the mandate.   

And he recommended that schools follow his lead. 

“I encourage school districts, who are the employers, to use the state as a model and take a similar approach,” he said.

Three months later, not everyone has taken that advice.

With a federal vaccine mandate snarled in litigation, many Vermont districts have adopted a wait-and-see approach to requiring vaccines for school staff. 

VTDigger reached out to every superintendent in the state — who represent a total of 54 districts and supervisory unions — to ask if their school district or supervisory union had implemented a vaccine mandate.

Superintendents or other administration staff from 48 of those districts responded to VTDigger’s inquiry. Of those, 34 — about 71% — have no vaccine mandates for their staff. 

Only 14 districts and supervisory unions, or 29% of respondents, had implemented vaccine requirements as of mid-December.

Such mandates — which take the form of standalone policies, or contractual agreements with staff unions — generally require all staff members to either undergo vaccination or weekly Covid-19 testing. The policies also generally allow for religious exemptions.

One school organization, Grand Isle Supervisory Union, asks employees to take a nonbinding “Safety Pledge” committing to being either vaccinated or tested weekly. (VTDigger did not classify Grand Isle among those organizations with a vaccine mandate.)

For those districts and supervisory unions who have mandated vaccines, the reasoning is simple: safety. 

“We work with kids, many of whom are unvaccinated,” Libby Bonesteel, the superintendent of the Montpelier-Roxbury School District, said in an email. “Maintaining the safest environment possible is our top priority.” 

“We believe it is a critical component to keeping schools open and staff in the classrooms,” Brooke Olsen-Farrell, the superintendent of the Slate Valley Unified Union School District, said in an email. 

For those districts that have opted not to impose a mandate, the reasons can be more complicated. Many superintendents said they were watching for guidance from the state. 

“We’re sort of waiting for a state plan to emerge,” said Catherine Gallagher, the superintendent of the Lamoille North Supervisory Union. 

The state, meanwhile, is waiting for guidance from the feds. 

In November, the Biden administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Agency implemented a vaccine mandate for employers with 100 employees or more. 

Particularities in the federal Occupational Safety and Health law mean that Vermont is one of 26 states in which all government employees, local and state, would be subject to the OSHA vaccine mandate. 

But that mandate has been embroiled in litigation since its inception. Observers are waiting for a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, which has scheduled a special session on Jan. 7 to hear arguments. 

The Vermont Agency of Education is urging school districts to wait for that decision. 

Education Secretary Dan French “has strongly encouraged districts to wait for the rule; as it would be preferable for the state to move forward with a uniform policy,” Ted Fisher, an agency spokesperson, said in an email. 

The agency is “generally supportive” of a mandate, Fisher said. “Once we receive clarity on the federal rule, we will work with Vermont OSHA (VOSHA) and the Department of Labor to extend the rule to all public school employers, not just those who qualify based on their employee count.”

But some school districts have other reasons to forgo vaccine mandates. 

Many school officials noted that the vast majority of school staff have already gotten their shots. Fisher estimated that the vaccination rate for school employees is “well north of 80% across the state, and likely far higher.”

“I feel like we’re operating safely right now,” Ryan Heraty, the superintendent of Lamoille South Supervisory Union, said in an interview. “Our teachers are doing it voluntarily. We don’t need to mandate them to do it.”

Other school officials expressed concern that, amid a statewide staffing crisis, such mandates would drive away employees or potential new hires. 

Earlier this month, the Kingdom East School District School Board narrowly voted down a vaccine requirement. Arguing against the mandate, Kingdom East board member Jim Peyton said it would amount to “holding their job over their head” for school staff.

“Can we afford to lose any of them — whether we fire them or they quit?” Peyton said. 

The Vermont Superintendents Association has taken no official position on such a mandate, Executive Director Jeffrey Francis said in an email.  

But Darren Allen, a spokesperson for the Vermont chapter of the teachers union National Education Association, called on districts and supervisory unions to adopt mandates swiftly. 

“We believe the sooner, the better,” Allen said. “This is simple, right? I mean, we should avail ourselves of modern medicine and modern science and modern epidemiological expertise.”

“Because the virus is in charge,” he said. “We’re not in charge.”