Last night (Thursday), just four days before the school year is scheduled to start, the Alexandria School Board voted to require staff to either be vaccinated or take weekly COVID-19 tests.
The School Board unanimously voted approval of the vaccination and testing requirements, but with significant changes throughout the meeting over when staff would be required to submit their proof of vaccination.
Superintendent Gregory Hutchings had initially Sept. 7 as the deadline for staff to submit proof of vaccination, with weekly testing starting on Sept. 20, but the board approved a motion by School Board member Christopher Suarez to move that up to proof-of-vaccination by Aug. 27 and testing on Aug. 30. An amendment by School Board member Ramee Gentry still left the door open for adjustments to that timetable if necessary.
“We had a team of people working for two weeks to figure this out and I think throwing dates on them like ‘on August 30 people doing are this,’ that’s the problem I would have,” said School Board chair Meagan Alderton. “I am not against a vaccine requirement, but the principle all works together for me… I just cannot assume that they didn’t think a lot of this through and didn’t have the same discussion we’re having. If I felt that way about them, none of them should have jobs, but we’ve entrusted them.”
ACPS Chief of Staff Stephen Wilkins said the school system will be putting out a mandatory survey this weekend that will ask staff if they are or plan to get vaccinated.
The vaccine requirement is complicated by the fact that ACPS doesn’t have systems in place yet for what to do with the data that’s collected.
“We also have to incorporate and implement a process for this data to be collected,” Hutchings said. “Trying to do things manually where people bring in their cards: where is that information stored? For weekly testing, we have to have a database for that. We have to coordinate with Alexandria Health Department because there will be contract tracing involved.”
In May, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission confirmed that employers could require vaccination, but the wave of vaccination requirements at a local level was kicked off by the announcement by President Joe Biden in late July that federal employees would be required to be vaccinated.
“I think people might need, and I’m saying this because I certainly did, need a refresher on when exactly we started talking about vaccine requirements,” Gentry said. “President Biden made his announcement requiring federal employees on Thursday, July 29. The following Thursday was when Governor Northam made announcement that state of Virginia employees would be required to show proof of vaccination or undergo testing. I think it’s helpful for people to keep that in mind: this is not something everyone has been talking about for months. It’s something that’s literally only been unfolding in the last few weeks.”
Hutchings said the school leadership is still keeping a wary eye out for legal challenges to the vaccine requirement, and what that could mean for the new ACPS policy.
“We do have authority to require testing and require vaccinations,” Hutchings said. “However, there have been no cases where someone has contested that requirement. That has not occurred as of yet, and I’m sure it’s going to begin soon… All of these are just coming into action over the past week. This is something that’s fairly new. We will probably see, across Commonwealth, how it works, and what we can and can’t do… especially since the vaccine right now is not FDA approved. It is emergency approved but is not officially FDA approved.”
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