2021 | Schools

MCPS discussing COVID-19 vaccination mandate for staff members

District doesn’t say if there would be testing option instead, like county, federal plans have

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This story and headline were updated at 7:50 p.m. Aug. 9, 2021, to reflect the school district’s discussion of a vaccination mandate.

Following an announcement last week that Montgomery County employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested regularly, Montgomery County Public Schools leaders say they are discussing the county’s approach and considering their own potential vaccination mandate.

The district emphasized it is early in discussions, and “all options are on the table,” MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said in an interview on Monday.

The district has not said if it would take the same approach as the Montgomery County and federal governments, which are allowing employees to go through testing if they are not vaccinated.

The largest school district in Maryland with about 24,000 employees, MCPS would be among the first large districts across the country to mandate COVID-19 vaccines, if the proposal is implemented.

“MCPS leadership is definitely discussing it,” Onijala said. “We understand the concerns of the community, and what we want to do is make sure we have the right systems in place to ensure the safety of students and [the] staff.”

Onijala did not give specific details about what the district is considering.

The MCPS proposal was prompted by a vaccination mandate passed last week for county employees.

During a call with reporters on Wednesday, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich announced that he planned to require county employees to provide proof of vaccination or to submit to regular testing. The County Council, acting as the local Board of Health, on Thursday approved a measure requiring an implementation plan be submitted by Aug. 20, which includes all county employees. MCPS staff members are not considered county employees.

State officials have not required public school employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, though Gov. Larry Hogan announced on Thursday that it will be a requirement for some state employees.

Spokespeople for Hogan and the Maryland State Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment on Friday and Monday. A spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich also did not respond to requests for comment.

Lynne Harris, a school board member, said on Friday she thinks it’s “reasonable” to have a “ ‘vaccinate or regularly test’ protocol for anyone working closely with vulnerable children.”

“Certainly, right now, that’s anyone who can’t be vaccinated,” including children younger than 12, Harris said.

Some school district leaders said they believe implementing such a mandate would involve negotiations with the three employee unions.

A spokesman for SEIU Local 500, the union representing the district’s service workers, was not available for comment.

Jennifer Martin, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the county teachers union, said in an interview on Friday that the group is committed to implementing measures necessary to ensure schools are fully reopened throughout the next school year.

If vaccination were mandated, she said, the union would want to ensure that anyone who received the vaccine and needed time to recover from side effects were allowed that time.

She said anyone who is not vaccinated should be tested regularly to “ensure the safety of everybody.”

“We definitely want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to give kids the best educational experience we can, in the midst of this trouble, and that we do everything we can to make sure that schools are not a place where the disease spreads,” Martin said, adding that she believes the “vast majority” of teachers have been vaccinated.

In the winter and spring, as part of a push to reopen public school buildings after a yearlong closure, the county prioritized educators in its vaccination plan. By March, all MCPS employees had received an offer to receive a shot, according to county health officials.

As of June 3, MCPS estimated that 70% of its employees had been vaccinated.

With the district planning to reopen schools full-time in the fall, MCPS’ interim superintendent, Monifa McKnight, told the school board last month that employees will be expected to return to buildings, regardless of their vaccination status.

In a text message to Bethesda Beat on Friday, Montgomery College spokesman Marcus Rosano wrote that the college does not plan to require staff members or students to be vaccinated, but “strongly encourages” it. College administrators, however, will continue to have regular conversations and “everything is on the table, including the vaccine requirement,” if necessary, Rosano wrote.

He did not have an estimate of how many employees have already been vaccinated, but the college planned to release a survey in the coming days to gather data.

During the County Council’s discussion about the local vaccine mandate last week, several said they hope MCPS implements a similar mandate on its own.

Council Member Andrew Friedson reiterated the point in a text message to Bethesda Beat on Saturday.

“Vaccination remains the most effective way to dramatically reduce serious illness, hospitalizations, and death. That’s why it’s so important for the county government to require vaccinations for our employees to keep our workforce and the residents we serve safe and to lead by the power of our example as a large employer,” Friedson wrote. “I sincerely hope MCPS will follow suit and strongly urge them to move forward quickly to protect educators and our kids who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in late July that the city’s public school teachers — in the largest district in the country — would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the time school starts in September or be tested for the virus each week.

Denver, Colo., Mayor Michael Hancock last week announced a similar mandate for city employees and private sector workers in “high-risk settings,” including teachers at public and private schools.

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