2021 | Schools

After loosening employee vaccination mandate, MCPS keeps student-athlete requirement

Athletes cannot request religious exemption or opt for weekly test

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Montgomery County student-athletes this winter and spring will be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccination and can’t take weekly tests instead or opt out due to religious beliefs.

The mandate is stricter than what is required of school district employees, who can instead opt for weekly testing and cite religious beliefs as a reason to not get the shot.

In an email on Tuesday explaining the difference, MCPS spokesman Chris Cram wrote: ​​”For athletes, increased exposure to ‘forced exhalation,’ the closeness of play … drives the guidance for a vaccine mandate for athletes.”

“​​Religious exemptions are not being permitted due to the direct threat of COVID-19 transmission to the health and safety of student-athletes and staff in close-contact sporting events and activities,” the email said.

The student-athlete mandate is “lawful,” and “consistent with public health authority and other government guidance,” according to MCPS.

The district cited guidance from state health and school officials that says districts can “set their own policies and procedures for their schools, students/children, teachers, and staff.” Additionally, MCPS said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “a layering” of preventative measures, including vaccinations for all participants “because of the increased exhalation that occurs during physical activity.”

MCPS announced in early September that it would require all of its student-athletes in winter and spring sports to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Many of the sports, like wrestling and basketball, are considered “high risk” of virus transition, Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said while announcing the measure.

During an interview at the time, Director of Systemwide Athletics Jeff Sullivan said the requirement is intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within the athletics programs and, ultimately, in schools.

The MCPS employee mandate originally did not include the option for religious exemptions. Shortly after it was passed, an unnamed administrative employee filed a federal lawsuit saying the mandate violated his religious freedoms.

Within days, the school district sent messages to employees saying religious exemptions would be honored. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.

The employee mandate originally allowed for the option to be tested weekly instead of being vaccinated, but that was reversed in a school board meeting in September.

But in a recent message to staff members, MCPS again reinstated the option to be tested in lieu of vaccination. Cram said in an interview on Monday the change was made, in part, because the district “can’t afford” to lose any employees as it deals with a significant staffing shortage.

As of Friday evening, 578 employees had not reported their vaccination status. There was no update as of Tuesday.

Those employees received a formal letter of reprimand and will not be paid for work on Nov. 24, which is a holiday. They could face further discipline if they “continue to fail to attest to their vaccination status after Nov. 24,” according to the message.

MCPS employees who need to test each week can do so at some school sites, or use up to two hours of “unusual and imperative leave to complete the required testing.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com