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CCSD employees divided ahead of board meeting on vaccination mandate

Updated September 1, 2021 - 7:20 am

A large crowd is expected for a Clark County School Board meeting Wednesday to consider whether to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for employees.

The School Board may take action during a special meeting at 5 p.m. at the Clark County Government Center.

There’s no proposed timeline for when a requirement for Clark County School District workers to be fully vaccinated could take effect. If approved, the mandate would allow for medical and religious exemptions.

About 25,000 of the district’s approximately 42,000 employees — nearly 60 percent — have already uploaded a completed COVID-19 vaccination card into emocha Health, the system used to monitor their vaccine status, the district said last week. Those who haven’t are required to undergo weekly testing.

The district called a vaccine mandate the “responsible, commonsense course of action we’ve seen many other government agencies, companies, institutions and organizations pursue” in a statement on Friday and said it’s important to protect students younger than 12 who aren’t eligible to get vaccinated and to keep school buildings open for in-person classes.

Related: CCSD trustee uses QAnon hashtag in tweet assailing vaccine mandate

As of Tuesday, the district had reported 1,345 COVID-19 cases among employees and students in August.

The Clark County Education Association teachers union supports all efforts to keep schools as safe as possible, including vaccinations, Executive Director John Vellardita said Tuesday, but can’t sign off on a mandate at this point.

The teachers union needs to learn what the mandate is, how it will be implemented and whether it will have some unintended consequences, he said.

Also, due to problems with other school district actions such as school reopening and COVID-19 testing for employees, the union has grave concerns about whether Superintendent Jesus Jara’s administration would be able to effectively roll out an employee vaccination mandate, Vellardita said.

The union communicated with trustees on Tuesday, saying there should be a discussion before developing and implementing a mandate, “because part of our concern is that there may be an exit of staff of a significant level that may have an unintended consequence,” Vellardita said.

He said CCEA has some “workaround solutions” it would like to discuss.

The union surveyed nearly 9,000 educators and the majority indicated they support mandates such as for COVID-19 testing, masking and vaccines, but it wasn’t a supermajority, Vellardita said.

There’s a “significant bloc of folks” who have reservations and may leave their jobs if a vaccination mandate is approved, he said.

As of Tuesday, the school district’s hiring website had 819 licensed/certified job positions listed.

There are also more than 200 school bus driver vacancies, as of last week. And there’s a shortage of school nurses, Vellardita said.

If more employees leave, it could trigger larger class sizes with no social distancing for students, fuller school buses and fewer quarantine measures because there aren’t enough nurses in buildings, Vellardita said, noting COVID-19 transmission rates could go up as a result.

The Education Support Employees Association union said in a Monday post on Twitter that it has demanded to bargain with the school district over any testing or vaccination proposal, “which includes demanding that all pay and benefits remain in place as part of any approved testing and/or vaccination policy.”

“Entering our second full school year facing the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific evidence shows us that COVID-19 vaccines, combined with other safety measures, such as stringent testing, are the most powerful weapon we have against the pandemic,” the union said. “Along with vaccinations, such testing accommodations for those who are unable to be vaccinated are appropriate, responsible, and necessary to ensure our schools can remain open and our students remain safe.”

Dueling online petitions

Two Change.org petitions are circulating related to the school district’s proposed vaccination mandate — one opposed and one in favor.

Natalie Larson, a parent of three school district students, created the petition titled “Medical Freedom of Choice for Clark County School District Employees,” which opposes the measure.

As of Tuesday morning, 7,755 people had signed it. It’s addressed to Superintendent Jesus Jara and school board President Linda Cavazos.

Larson, who launched the petition Saturday, said she attended last week’s School Board meeting in-person and was overwhelmed by the number of constituents presenting whose concerns were being dismissed.

The reasoning behind starting a petition: “I just don’t want to co-parent with CCSD,” she said.

Medical mandates don’t have any place in a free society, Larson said, noting medicine is never a one-size-fits-all solution.

If no one backs up school employees, the district will lose a lot of amazing workers, Larson said. “A lot of them are willing to leave their job and students over this, and it’s absolutely tragic to me.”

Larson said a secondary fear is that if someone doesn’t draw the line here, she worries a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for students could be coming in the future.

She said she’s not pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination, or pro-mask or anti-mask. “I just want freedom of choice.”

Larson said she has signed up to speak during a public comment period at the Wednesday school board meeting. She plans to bring a printout of the petition with the signatures and comments to deliver to Jara and the trustees.

The petition references the Nuremberg Code, a document drawn up in 1947 by American judges sitting in judgment of Nazi doctors accused of conducting notorious human medical experiments in concentration camps. Among other things, it states that people shouldn’t be the subject of medical experiments without voluntary consent.

“Public policy further demands that uncoerced consent is required,” according to the petition.

The clear policy choice to protect a person’s right to choose “is further supported by the fact that whether these are actually safe and effective is not yet known,” the petition alleges, referring to the COVID-19 vaccines.

National health and legal experts have said the Nuremberg Code isn’t applicable to COVID-19 vaccines, which went through clinical trials where participants provided consent and have emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Pfizer vaccine gained full authorization last week for those 16 and older, and remains under emergency use authorization for those ages 12-15 and for third doses for those who are immunocompromised.

The rival petition, titled “CCSD COVID Vaccination Should be Mandatory,” is circulating in favor of a vaccination mandate.

As of Tuesday morning, 380 people had signed it. It’s addressed to Jara, Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert, Gov. Steve Sisolak, the Southern Nevada Health District, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kindergarten teacher Angie Sullivan, who’s also part of the Clark County Education Association’s social justice caucus, created the petition about two weeks ago.

Sullivan said it’s important to get vaccinated not only for yourself, but for your community. “It has to be mandated,” she said.

She also noted that teachers are already required to receive other vaccinations.

The teacher had COVID-19 and still had symptoms a year later, but noted some of those symptoms subsided after getting vaccinated.

“For a lot of people, this is not the flu,” Sullivan said. “This is something you don’t want to get.”

Other employee opinions

Other CCSD employees spoke out for and against a vaccination mandate at least week’s board meeting, before the district revealed that it would seek board approval for such a measure. Others have been quietly making their opinions heard ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.

High school social studies teacher Robert Cowles said he thinks a vaccination mandate is the wrong approach. He emailed Jara and trustees over the weekend suggesting they should incentivize vaccination instead.

That approach should have started this summer once it was apparent the delta variant was the more contagious and dominant COVID-19 strain, he said.

For example, he said, the district could use a “carrot and stick” approach where everyone who’s vaccinated by the end of September would get $1,000 and those who aren’t would get charged an additional $100 per month toward their health care costs.

Cowles cited already existing financial issues with THT Health, the health insurance plan for district teachers, noting it’s expensive if someone becomes seriously ill with COVID-19 and requires hospitalization.

Cowles said he’s pro-vaccination and got his first COVID-19 shot in January and the second in February.

But he said he understands people who don’t want to get vaccinated. “I disagree, but I understand their position,” he said

He said he doesn’t like the idea of the school district forcing people to get vaccinated in order to remain employed or having to find another job.

The school district, he said, “can’t afford to lose teachers who are going to be bent out of shape (about the) vaccine mandate because they’re vehemently opposed to vaccines or they’re vehemently opposed to this vaccine or whatever,” he said. “We’re that shorthanded that we can’t afford to lose anybody.”

Due to staffing shortages, Cowles sold both of his prep periods and is teaching eight classes a day this school year.

Mandates in educational settings

The Clark County School District isn’t the first in Nevada to move forward with considering a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for educational settings.

The Nevada System of Higher Education plans to ask its Board of Regents at a Sept. 10 meeting to consider drafting policy amendments that would require employees to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 1.

NSHE employees, who are included in the state’s approximately 27,000 employees, are currently required to either be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

Last month, the State Board of Health voted to require all public college and university students to be fully vaccinated in order to enroll for the spring 2022 semester. Medical and religious exemptions are allowed.

Some of the nation’s largest public school districts have also recently announced similar mandates, including the New York City Department of Education, Chicago Public Schools and Los Angeles Unified School District.

California is requiring public and private school kindergarten through 12th grade employees to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing. Washington state also recently announced a vaccination requirement for both public and private school employees.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization that represents about 75 of the nation’s largest school districts, has an online tracker on Education Week’s website showing how many districts are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employees, as well as COVID-19 testing and face masks.

As of Tuesday, it showed 34 percent of districts that are organization members have a staff vaccination mandate, which includes districts that require either vaccination or COVID-testing.

In total, 93 percent of districts have a mask mandate and 69 percent have COVID-19 testing, either mandatory or optional.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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