At least 93% of Montgomery County Public Schools employees had provided proof that they had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by their Monday afternoon deadline.
That leaves no more than 7% of the district’s nearly 25,000 employees who could be disciplined for failing to provide proof of their vaccination status.
After two months of urging MCPS to encourage its employees to get vaccinated, the deadline passed at 5 p.m. Monday to prove this.
About 7% – 1,782 – of the district’s employees had not provided evidence by 10 a.m. Monday. An exact number was not immediately known Monday evening.
Those workers could face repercussions in the coming weeks, starting with an official “letter of reprimand” on their track record on Friday. If they don’t continue to comply, the employees could be fired.
If that happens, it could put a strain on operations in the state’s largest school district, as MCPS leaders recently acknowledged an already severe staff shortage.
“It’s a really challenging situation we’re in,” said the vice president of the school board, Karla Silvestre. “We have to keep our students safe and we have to keep our schools safe.”
District leaders are hopeful that an increase in posts highlighting the reasons for and importance of the mandate will help convince any stragglers to stick to it. And it’s likely that many of the people who haven’t reported their vaccination status are not technologically savvy or speak limited English, and are simply unaware of the mandate, some officials said.
In an interview on Monday, school district spokesman Chris Cram said “very few teachers” have failed to report 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.
In the past month, MCPS employees — mostly teachers — have held meetings to draw attention to what they consider to be “normal” staff shortages in the district.
The school board last week acknowledged the challenges the shortages have created and decided to close the schools the day before Thanksgiving because they don’t expect there will be enough substitute teachers to cover those on leave for vacation trips and events.
In October, teachers said they had to forgo lunch and scheduling periods to cover extra classes or perform other tasks not specified in their contracts.
According to Pia Morrison, president of the union that represents them, the service workers have also been stretched.
When teachers are sick and no substitutes are available, para-educators are tasked with filling in the gaps, she said. And bus drivers have to double – sometimes triple – the number of routes to make up for the driver shortage and avoid routes being interrupted.
On Monday, MCPS officials, including board chairman 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, to them, to our children and to our operations.”
“We are not giving any judgment at all about how they feel about the vaccine. But we … need to speak to them more than once and make sure they really understand the requirement and the importance of it,” Cram said. “We appreciate them and the work they do is so important, so we’ll give a little, but only up to now. Safety, in this case the vaccines, is far too important.”
What happens to employees who have not submitted a vaccination certificate on Monday?
These employees have recently been notified of their mandate compliance status. Those who failed to comply by Friday will receive a “permanent letter of reprimand” in their personnel files. They are also not paid for work on November 24. The day, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, is considered a holiday this year.
MCPS “reserves the right to seek further disciplinary action up to and including termination for those who still fail to confirm their vaccination status after November 24, 2021,” according to a letter sent to employees last week.
When asked how long after Monday’s deadline the district will work with employees to obtain their vaccination records, Cram said there is no “set timeline.”
“If you’re working towards it, we want to work with you,” Cram said. “We hired you. We appreciate you. But the urgency will increase… because this is just too important.”
How many employees have applied for religious or medical exemptions?
As of Monday morning, 264 employees had applied for a religious exemption from the mandate and 197 had applied for a medical exemption.
Cram said the “number of waiver requests is right in line with those who have stated they don’t have the vaccination.”
He said employees who provided the required documentation to support their request have received a decision on their request.
It was not immediately clear what documentation was needed.
What is the history of the MCPS COVID-19 vaccination mandate?
In September — when nearly 160,000 students returned to school, many for the first time in 18 months and still unable to get vaccinated — the school board mandated that all of its nearly 25,000 employees be vaccinated.
Originally, the board allowed those who did not want to be vaccinated to take a weekly test instead. The board also originally didn’t allow employees to cite their religion as a reason for not getting the vaccine, setting a deadline for mid-October.
Shortly after, an unnamed employee filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the mandate. He said it was illegal for MCPS not to respect religious exemptions.
Within days of the lawsuit being filed, MCPS sent out public notices saying it would respect 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 submitting employee vaccination certificates, as some employees reported having trouble uploading their records.
The deadline to provide proof of full vaccination was postponed from October 29 to November 15.
Now that students of all ages are eligible for the vaccine, is the staff mandate necessary?
MCPS officials said yes on Monday.
It will be several weeks before the vaccine is widely available and administered to children ages 5 to 11 in the province. Then the children need the second dose and are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks later.
That leaves a long window of time before the district’s youngest students are protected from the virus, Cram said, and they rely on the adults around them to help limit the spread of the virus.
The COVID-19 vaccine is not mandatory for students in MCPS unless they participate in athletics.
In Montgomery County, more than 19,000 children between the ages of 5 and 11 had received their first injection on Monday.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at [email protected]