2021 | Schools

MCPS softens COVID-19 vaccination mandate to allow for weekly testing instead

Out of 25,000 employees, about 700 unvaccinated, 538 had not reported status as of Friday

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Montgomery County Public Schools has backed away from firing employees who don’t get the COVID-19 vaccine because it “can’t afford” to lose anyone, a spokesman said.

The district in recent weeks has acknowledged a “dire” staffing shortage during the pandemic affecting teachers, substitutes and support staff

But it also announced near the beginning of the academic year that all of its nearly 25,000 employees would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or potentially be terminated. It was not allowing those who were unvaccinated to instead be tested weekly, unless they were granted a medical or religious exemption.

But in a recent message sent to employees, MCPS wrote that employees who reported that they are not vaccinated — about 700 — would be able to instead submit proof of a negative COVID-19 test each week. If the weekly test results are not submitted, employees will face “disciplinary action up to and including termination,” the letter said.

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

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 spokesman Chris Cram said in an interview on Monday that the change was made, in part, because “we can’t afford to start letting people go.”

“We need every staff member we have,” he said, “but we need every staff member to understand how important this is to safety.”

He said that the COVID-19 vaccination approval for children ages 5 to 11 — which was not available when the mandate was first passed — also creates less of a need to mandate the vaccination for employees.

According to county health officials, about 28,452 children in the age group had received the first dose of the two-dose vaccine regimen as of Sunday. In total, 88.6% of all Montgomery County residents are at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 78.6% are fully vaccinated.

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.”

“It is important and expected that each employee that is required to test do so at a time and in a manner that is least impactful to the operation of their school or office,” the district’s message said. “School staff must schedule their required testing at times that will not require substitute coverage.”

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