BRADFORD – The Orange East Supervisory Union Board is scheduled to consider mandating COVID-19 vaccines for school staff at a special meeting on Tuesday.
Prior to that meeting, the board has received several letters from employees saying they will stop or be fired rather than be vaccinated if the board institutes a mandate.
“I am not currently vaccinated and do not plan to be,” said Jazmin Shaw, a teacher at the Watch Them Grow Childcare Center at the River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, in a letter to the board on Feb. 8. “I want to keep my job, which I absolutely love, but I’m stuck in my beliefs.”
Shaw’s is among the eight signed letters opposing the claim, which had been posted on the board’s website from Friday. There were also five anonymous letters opposing the measure and two in support.
Opponents of the measure said they were concerned that the requirement would further reduce staff levels at a time when schools are already experiencing labor shortages. Some employees requested that the requirement be postponed until the end of the school year so that they could end the school year. Others requested that they be given the opportunity to be tested regularly for COVID-19 instead of being vaccinated. They also said they felt vaccination should be a personal choice. A letter writer attached a letter from her St. Johnsbury, Vt., Chiropractor, who expressed his opposition to the vaccines.
Meanwhile, those who said they support the mandate said requiring vaccines should be part of schools’ public health response to the pandemic.
“The conversation about how to respond to this virus should be taken up by qualified health professionals, not peripherally informed skeptics,” Ryegate resident Richard Balzano wrote in a letter to the board on January 14. “… So let’s go ahead with a mandate on (Blue Mountain Union School), and let’s see this as an opportunity. Any staff / faculty that chooses not to be vaccinated without a valid medical excuse can proceed. Good riding. “
The Committee, which includes schools in Bradford, Newbury, Corinth, Wells River and Thetford, had previously informed staff that it would require COVID-19 vaccination by 4 February, in accordance with the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Authority’s mandate or test option for employers with more than 100 people. But last month, OSHA dropped the rule after the Supreme Court blocked it.
It is now up to the OESU Board to decide whether to implement the requirement, which would apply to the union’s approximately 800 staff, temporary staff, coaches, volunteers and other temporary staff.
More schools on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley has already introduced vaccine requirementsincluding the Hartford and Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union. A state law signed by Governor Chris Sununu in July prevents New Hampshire schools from imposing such a requirement.
Superintendents of Hartford and Windsor Southeast have said their mandates, which took effect this fall, had minimal effect on staff at their schools. Hartford Superintendent Tom Debalsi said three employees refused to be vaccinated. Windsor Southeast Superintendent David Baker said only one employee denied the shots; another 11 received religious exemptions and are tested regularly.
The EESC Board discussed the issue, but took no action, at a meeting on 18 January. Draft minutes of that meeting show that board members Charlie Buttrey, Thetford; Judy Murray, of Wells River; Donna Pluta of Thetford supports such a claim. Board member Danielle Corti, who chairs the Oxbow Unified Union School District, said she wanted to ask teachers and staff to see what the impact of such a mandate would be on staff.
A letter signed by four OESU staff, three at the Technical Center and one at Oxbow High School in Bradford, said it could be difficult to measure the impact of the mandate on students.
“Children create lasting relationships with everyone from their class teacher to school bus drivers, coaches, guardians, volunteers and all other adults they interact with daily at their schools,” according to the letter signed by tech center staff Carl Hildebrandt; Brad DeGoosh; and Mike Howe, as well as Oxbow paraeducator Jack Palmer. “Any person who is lost to this mandate can mean an irreplaceable loss to some student somewhere who looked at the person as their rock.”
Melanie Rhoads, OESU Director of Human Resources, gave a presentation to the Management Board on 18 January outlining the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce.
Due to COVID quarantines in this school year until January 7, employees had missed 208 working days. Two employees had approved claims for work injury compensation, corresponding to 10 missing days. As of January 17, 37 employees had tested positive for the virus in a total of 81 missing working days.
In the first 18 days of January, OESU schools had been closed for six days, according to Rhoads’ presentation.
Superintendent Emilie Knisley pointed to staffing problems as the cause school closures in the middle of the omicron rise in early January.
The New Hampshire and Vermont chapters of the National Education Association, as well as the National Teachers Association, supported vaccine mandates for school staff this summer as the number of cases began to rise as the delta variant hit the twin states.
It is not clear what percentage of OESU staff have been vaccinated. Knisley said school officials are collecting data on vaccination rates and will have more information to share at Tuesday’s meeting.
According to the draft minutes of the January 18 meeting, Knisley said, “a vaccinated workforce is more available to report for work.”
The meeting will be held via Zoom on Tuesday at 18. Agenda and meeting link are available online at oesu.org/school-boards/oesu-school-board/.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be contacted at [email protected] or 603-727-3213.