state Department of Health Services

This chart released by the state Department of Health Services last week shows hospital bed usage in Arizona by COVID-19 patients (red) versus other patients (dark gray).

As teachers inch toward the head of the line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, it begs the question: can school districts mandate inoculations?

According to the Arizona School Risk Retention Trust, yes.

“School districts may require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of on-site work, subject to exemptions required by state and/or federal law,” reads a legal memo prepared for the nonprofit Trust and circulated late last month to its member districts. 

The Trust, which provides more than 250 public school districts and community colleges with property and liability insurance, also advised districts to consult with their own attorneys on legal issues related to any vaccination requirement.

Initial reaction both officially and unofficially was mixed last week.

Speaking only for herself and not for the Kyrene Governing Board, new member Wanda Kolomyjec, herself an adjunct professor, said, “The expectation that certain populations must receive vaccines has been a practice in our society for a long time. The only way to eradicate certain diseases like polio and small pox, was to rely on the scientific notion that everyone must receive a vaccine. 

“To that end, schools have always required students must receive their vaccines before being permitted to enroll in schools with certain limited exemptions for religious beliefs etc. Therefore, I think requiring teachers and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 – with the same exceptions – makes sense, both scientifically and historically.” 

New Tempe Union Governing board member Sarah James, a teacher, said that while she doesn’t know the district’s position, she believes “this is an issue we will have conversations about hopefully soon.” 

“On a personal level,” James added, “my hope is that teachers flock to get the vaccine so we can get back into classrooms ASAP. I understand the hesitation on one level, but I also trust the science and I am so ready to get my vaccine.” 

Kyrene spokeswoman Erin Helm said today, "Kyrene will not be requiring vaccines for staff at this time." Tempe Union spokeswoman Megan Sterling said the district had no comment.

Chandler Unified spokesman Terry Locke told AFN, “We won’t mandate teachers get vaccinated, but we will promote and encourage those opportunities.”

Chandler Unified CFO Lana Berry is the secretary for the Trust Board.

Mesa Public Schools board member Marcie Hutchinson – a 26-year veteran history teacher in three MPS high schools – said she thinks the Trust may have a good point.

“We’ve always got to be thinking about public health with public education and I think I’d be strongly in favor of the inoculation of our employees just to keep our staff safe,” Hutchinson said, adding that provisions would have to be made for some employees who have legitimate reasons for being exempted from a vaccine mandate.

Healthcare workers and long-term care facility staff and residents are among the first to receive the vaccine, to be followed by teachers, law enforcement and other critical workers. 

Sheila Uggetti, who sits on the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board, said whether to make the vaccination mandatory for teachers has not been discussed at any level in the district and spokeswoman Dawn Antestenis said GPS at this time has no plans to make it mandatory for staff.

 Uggetti added, “I believe that we should follow whatever is required by the department of health.”

But guidance from health officials may be a long time coming.

Maricopa County spokesman Ron Coleman said the issue isn’t on the agenda any time soon for the Board of Supervisors to consider. School districts generally have been following state and county COVID-19 health guidelines.

Coleman noted that when it would come to an inoculation mandate for staff, district officials probably would be making the call.

“Local school boards generally have governing jurisdiction over their schools,” said Coleman, adding the county is following guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Spokeswoman Heidi Vega of the Arizona School Boards Association agreed that it is up to individual districts to decide.

“We believe currently it is a local district decision whether to require teachers and/ or staff be vaccinated as a condition of working, so long as exceptions are made for medical reasons and accommodations under the ADA,” Vega said. 

“We would represent the interests of ASBA at the Legislature to keep this local authority,” she added.

School districts that choose to require mandatory vaccinations must first create a process where employees can apply for an exemption based on an ADA disability or a sincerely held religious belief, barring undue hardship to a district, according to the memo.

Exemptions make sense, Hutchinson said, noting students are required to get certain types of vaccinations but their parents can seek exemptions for religious, medical or other reasons.

Hutchinson also said she would think many teachers would have no problem with a mandate.

“I think we can make reasonable accommodations but I also think that if we have the vaccine … they are willing to risk their life in order to teach kids personally,” she said. 

“I think a lot of teachers would be very willing,” Hutchinson added, noting teachers already must submit to fingerprinting and background checks just to get their job.

If a district cannot exempt an employee or there are no possible reasonable accommodations – such as working from home for those who claim a disability or religious belief – “it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace,” the Trust advises.

However, “this doesn’t mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker,” the memo stated. “Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the Equal Employment Opportunity laws or other federal, state and local authorities.”

The Trust’s December memo also weighed in on mandatory vaccination for students, advising that school districts should first seek guidance from the state before moving forward on that.  

“It is unclear whether a school district may require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 without specific authorization from ADHS or a local health department,” the memo said. 

“State law indicates that ADHS, in conjunction with the superintendent of public instruction, is responsible for developing documentary proof standards for evidence of vaccination.”

The memo also noted that at this time, the state health department has indicated there were no plans to revise the regulations regarding required immunizations for students.

And because none of the available vaccines are approved for children 16 and younger, it may be some time before schools would need to consider whether to require all students to be immunized, according to the memo.

Asked if the state Health Services Department will make a COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for students once a vaccine becomes available for them, spokeswoman Holly Poynter said her department “will continue to monitor the recommendations issued by the (CDC’s) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices as the data is updated.”

The Arizona Department of Education for now has no position on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for students like for measles and mumps before enrolling in school, said spokesman Richie Taylor.

He said that the department will await guidance from federal and state health officials.

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