76°F
weather icon Clear

School Board approves vaccine mandate after hours of contentious commentary

Updated September 2, 2021 - 6:03 am

The Clark County School Board voted early Thursday to approve a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for employees, which will be negotiated with unions.

Trustee Danielle Ford voted against it, and Trustee Katie Williams wasn’t in attendance for the vote. After the decision, many of the remaining audience members walked out and some yelled out comments.

The board heard more than five hours of public comments Wednesday night before deliberating on the proposal.

Dana English, a special education teacher, said she stands firmly against a vaccination mandate and is representing the majority.

“My health has never been the business of CCSD and certainly is not indicative of my ability to teach,” she said.

English asked trustees if they’re willing to lose many teachers because of a vaccination mandate.

Hundreds of people filled the main meeting room and hundreds more were directed to an overflow room, with a long line outside the Clark County Government Center waiting to go through security.

More than 80 people signed up to speak in advance of the meeting and more signed up on site. The board also received 203 pages of written public comments, most opposing the vaccination mandate.

The action will allow Superintendent Jesus Jara to draft and implement a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy. A draft of the proposal states it would allow for medical and religious exemptions. The proposal doesn’t include a timeline for when employees would have to show proof of vaccination.

The nation’s fifth-largest school district, which has approximately 42,000 employees, is operating with in-person classes this school year.

About 67 percent of the district’s employees have uploaded a competed COVID-19 vaccination card into the emocha Health platform.

Deliberations

Jara said the resolution is for the district to work with partners to create a plan. The memorandums of agreement with the unions after negotiations will have to come back to the board, he said.

Fikisha Miller, chief negotiator for the school district, said what’s being proposed is not a mandate that starts tomorrow. She said she understands the fear and distrust.

Miller said it’s a public safety issue and the district can act, but still has the obligation to have conversations with unions.

The district has to keep schools open operationally, Miller said. The virus is also evolving and “we have to try to keep people safe.”

Miller said what she heard during public comments are that people are scared of what would never happen — getting fired for refusing to get vaccinated due to religious beliefs.

“We are not trying to fire our workforce,” she said.

After asking questions and expressing concerns about the proposal, Trustee Danielle Ford said: “I’m not feeling super comfortable about this.”

Jara said he’s had conversations with high school seniors since school started Aug. 9 who’ve told him to do whatever it takes to keep schools open.

Trustee Lola Brooks said what Jara is looking for is the School Board to take a stand for employee vaccinations so he doesn’t take all of the heat.

“Personally, I think we should explore this avenue,” she said, adding the board has heard from medical experts and she trusts the scientific community.

The fear, anxiety and hesitancy is not a new phenomenon, Brooks said, noting that has happened with every new medical development.

She said she recognizes nothing is without risk. Ultimately, it is the board’s responsibility to keep students and families safe, and vaccines are the best way to do that, Brooks said.

Board President Linda Cavazos said it would have been helpful to have additional information about the proposal and she’s not thrilled about how it was rolled out. She asked what would happen if the board didn’t OK the proposal.

If the board doesn’t authorize it, Jara said, the district will go back and operate schools as is.

Cavazos said she very much wants to support the goal of the proposal. She said the question is the comfort level with approving it.

She said the word “mandate” struck anxiety in everyone. Cavazos said she has serious concerns, including a serious teacher shortage and the potential of losing employees if a mandate passes. She said she also trusts medical experts.

Ford said she won’t support the resolution and the audience applauded.

The unions aren’t happy with how things have been rolled out operationally during the pandemic, Ford said. They should have been consulted before the resolution, she said.

The district, she said, hasn’t explored other options such as better ensuring social distancing, more distance education options and an employee educational campaign.

Ford said she thinks the district should consider other options. She said she’s also concerned the resolution language is nearly identical to one used in Philadelphia.

She asked why employees have to be fired instead of being put on long-term leave. And she questioned why the board — and not the county or state — are the ones being asked to take action.

A couple of public health officials from the Southern Nevada Health District answered questions from board members.

Dr. Cort Lohff, chief medical officer for the health district, said the COVID-19 vaccine is very effective and went through extensive clinical trials to demonstrate its safety and efficacy.

While Lohff was answering a question by a school board trustee, a woman stood up and started shouting. She was removed from the room by police.

Lohff said the current recommendation from the CDC is for those who previously had COVID-19 to get vaccinated, but noted that could change in the future. In response to another question, Lohff said there’s evidence that protection levels from the vaccine wane over time.

“That’s not actually uncommon,” he said. “We’ve seen that from other vaccinations in the past, including childhood vaccinations.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently recommending a booster shot for those who are moderately to severely immunocompromised.

Ford asked how, if the district mandates vaccinations for employees, that would affect cities and hospitals.

An increase in the vaccination rate would reduce the likelihood of transmission in classrooms and may in turn be able to reduce transmission in the community as well, Lohff said.

The vaccine is not 100 percent perfect, but it’s better than not having a vaccine, he said.

Public comments

Donna Raagas, a retired district teacher and grandparent of current students, said 40 percent of employees haven’t uploaded a completed COVID-19 vaccination card.

In a district that large, that equates to thousands of people, she said. “That’s a huge group that deserves respect.”

Raagas also asked who has the authority to mandate vaccinations.

Jara told the crowd at the beginning of the meeting that the vaccination proposal is for employees, not students. After he said the district needed to take steps to address the evolving COVID-19 situation, some in the audience booed.

Multiple commenters said they were worried that if a vaccination mandate for employees was approved, that a mandate could be coming for students next. Others brought up the district’s already-existing employee shortage, saying the district can’t afford to lose any workers.

More than two hours into the public comment period, some in the audience were interrupting a public commenter whom board Chair Linda Cavazos said was inadvertently left off a public comment list but had signed up to speak. The commenter expressed support for a mandate.

Cavazos called a five-minute break and said the board would consider whether to clear the meeting room.

After coming back into the room, Cavazos said she wanted to remind attendees of the rules of decorum, including no heckling, and she wants to allow public commenters a chance to speak.

Nearly five hours into the meeting, a speaker directed a comment at trustee Evelyn Garcia Morales about how she left the room for 20 minutes but had made a comment earlier about wanting to add five seconds to a speaker’s time due to interruptions in the room. Garcia Morales left the meeting room and later returned.

Shortly thereafter, a man in the audience stood up and yelled at the board, calling them pathetic. He was escorted out of the room by police.

Jim Frazee, a high school teacher and vice president of the Clark County Education Association teachers union, said union members want the safest classrooms possible.

But, he said, “the reopening so far has been a disaster and we don’t have a lot of faith that this mandate will be any better …”

Frazee said the union wants to see the details for the proposed vaccination mandate before taking a stance.

It’s a complicated issue, he said, and he told Jara that with all due respect, “you haven’t done complicated very well this year.”

Vanessa Fullman, a second-grade teacher who said she’s anti-mandate and anti-government overreach, told the board: “If the vaccine is mandated, I will work until I’m fired.”

Kathy Stephens, who’s in her 17th year as a teacher, said that until Wednesday’s School Board meeting, she was always trusted to use her best judgment to do her job.

Now, the district has made a personal and private matter of medical decisions overtly political, she said, calling the proposed vaccination mandate “positively barbaric.”

Carole Moreo, an educator since 1997, said her commitment to her students and the district has been unwavering. She said she will not get vaccinated, noting reasons such as that those who are vaccinated can still contract and spread the virus. Moreo said she has means to walk away from her chosen profession, but many other educators don’t.

Mike English, a special education teacher, said the district is already experiencing a shortage of special education teachers.

Mandating a vaccine will exacerbate an “already dire situation,” he added.

Parents will file lawsuits if their child is no longer receiving the services the district is required to provide under their Individualized Education Program (IEP), English said.

During an afternoon board work session, teacher Meja Hammons — who also spoke during the evening meeting — said she has given 23 years of her life to the district, and has taught more than 1,000 kindergarten and first graders.

“Teaching is not just my job,” she said. “It’s my passion.”

A vaccination mandate will take that all away, Hammons said, noting it will remove her from the students she loves so dearly.

A high school senior who attends Cheyenne High School was among several who spoke in favor of a vaccination mandate, saying people who aren’t wearing a mask or aren’t vaccinated are robbing seniors of in-person opportunities like prom and graduation.

A few parents from Lamping Elementary School in Henderson, which operated under distance education recently due to COVID-19 cases, said in written public comments they support a mandate.

“The principal himself said that the outbreaks only happen amongst the unvaccinated staff,” Lori Linton-Rivera wrote. “The unvaccinated staff are precisely who are responsible for the shutdown. Vaccines MUST be mandated to avoid future shutdowns.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

THE LATEST
 
High school coach accused of sexual conduct with student

A former Mojave High School coach has been arrested on a charge of sexual conduct between school staff/volunteer and student, according to the Clark County School District Police Department.