2021 | Schools

The deadline for MCPS employees to receive COVID-19 vaccination has passed. What now?

At least 93% of employees had complied as of mandate deadline

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At least 93% of Montgomery County Public Schools’ employees had provided proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by their deadline on Monday afternoon.

That leaves no more than 7% of the district’s nearly 25,000 employees who could face discipline for not providing proof of their vaccination status.

After a two-month push by MCPS to encourage its employees to get vaccinated, the deadline to provide proof of doing so passed at 5 p.m. on Monday.

About 7% — 1,782 — of the district’s employees had not provided proof as of 10 a.m. Monday. An exact number was not immediately available Monday evening.

In the coming weeks, those employees could face consequences beginning with an official “letter of reprimand” on their record on Friday. If they continue to not comply, the employees could be fired.

If that happened, it could strain operations in the state’s largest school district, as MCPS leaders have recently acknowledged an already strenuous staffing shortage.

“It’s really a challenging situation that we’re in,” school board Vice President Karla Silvestre said. “We have to keep our students safe, and we have to keep our schools safe.”

District leaders are hopeful that an increase in messages emphasizing the reasons for and importance of the mandate will help persuade any holdouts to comply. And it’s likely that many of the people who have not reported their vaccination status are not technology savvy or speak limited English, and simply are unaware of the mandate, some officials said.

In an interview on Monday, school district spokesman Chris Cram said “very few teachers” have not reported their vaccination status. Most of the employees are service workers, such as those who work in the district warehouses and bus depots, and do food distribution.

Over the past month, MCPS employees — mostly teachers — have held rallies to call attention to what they consider “dire” staffing shortages across the district.

The school board last week acknowledged the challenges the shortages have caused and decided to close schools the day before Thanksgiving because they don’t expect to have enough substitute teachers to cover those on leave for holiday travel and events.

In October, teachers said they have had to forgo lunch and planning periods to cover extra classes or do other duties not outlined in their contracts.

Service workers have also been stretched thin, according to Pia Morrison, president of the union that represents them.

When teachers are out sick and substitutes aren’t available, paraeducators are tasked with filling the gaps, she said. And bus drivers have to make double — sometimes triple — the number of routes to make up for driver shortages and avoid routes being cut.

On Monday, MCPS officials, including board President Brenda Wolff, reiterated that “safety is our top priority.”

Cram added: “We have to do everything we can to make these last few employees understand how important this is, for them, for our kids and for our operations.”

“We’re not at all passing any sort of judgment about how they feel about the vaccine. But we … have to speak to them more than once and make sure they truly understand the requirement and the importance of it,” Cram said. “We value them and the work that they do is so important, so we will give a little, but only so far. Safety, which in this case is the vaccines, is far too important.”

What will happen to employees who did not provide proof of vaccination by Monday?

These employees recently received a notice about their status of compliance with the mandate. Those who have not complied by Friday will receive a “permanent letter of reprimand” in their employee file. They also will not be paid for work on Nov. 24. The day, which is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, is considered a holiday this year.

MCPS “reserves the right to invoke further discipline up to and including termination, for those who continue to fail to attest to their vaccination status after Nov. 24, 2021,” according to a letter sent to employees last week.

Asked how long after Monday’s deadline the district will work with employees to obtain their vaccination records, Cram said there’s not a “set timeline.”

“If you’re working toward it, we want to work with you,” Cram said. “We hired you. We value you. But there will be an increasing urgency … because this is just too important.”

How many employees have requested religious or medical exemptions?

As of Monday morning, 264 employees had requested a religious exemption to the mandate and 197 had requested a medical exemption.

Cram said the “number of exemption requests is right in line with those who’ve attested they don’t have the vaccination.”

He said employees who provided the required documentation to support their request have received a decision about their request.

It was not immediately clear what documentation was required.

What is the history of the MCPS COVID-19 vaccination mandate?

In September — as nearly 160,000 students returned to schools, many for the first time in 18 months and still unable to be vaccinated — the school board mandated that all of its nearly 25,000 employees be vaccinated.

Originally, the board allowed for those who did not want to be vaccinated to instead take a weekly test. The board also originally did not allow for employees to cite their religion as a reason to not get the vaccine, and set a deadline for mid-October.

Shortly after, an unnamed employee filed a federal lawsuit challenging the mandate. He said it was illegal for MCPS to not honor religious exemptions.

Within days of the lawsuit being filed, MCPS sent out public messages saying it would honor religious exemptions. The lawsuit was dismissed after the district granted the employee’s request.

In early October, the school board pushed back the deadline for employees to provide proof of vaccination because some employees reported having trouble uploading their records.

The deadline to provide proof of full vaccination was delayed from Oct. 29 to Nov. 15.

Now that students of all ages are eligible for the vaccine, is the employee mandate necessary?

MCPS officials on Monday said yes.

It will take several weeks for the vaccine to be widely available and administered to children ages 5 to 11 in the county. Then the children will need the second dose, and aren’t considered fully vaccinated until two weeks later.

That leaves a large window of time before the district’s youngest students are protected against the virus, Cram said, and they’re relying on the adults around them to help limit the virus’ spread.

The COVID-19 vaccine is not mandatory for students in MCPS, unless they participate in athletics.

In Montgomery County, more than 19,000 children in the 5- to 11-year-old age group had received their first shot as of Monday.

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