This article has been updated.
WINCHESTER — Staff at Winchester Public Schools will be required to get vaccinated for the coronavirus or be tested weekly beginning as early as January.
School Board members unanimously approved the staff policy Monday, but deadlocked 3-3 — board chairwoman Marie Imoh was absent for medical reasons — on a vaccinate-or-test requirement for student-athletes. Vice chairwoman Karen M. Anderson Holman, Carmen Crawford and Bryan Pearce-Gonzales voted yes, with Michael Birchenough Erica Truban and Elyus Wallace voting no.
Wallace said the requirement for student-athletes would "take away choices from parents." In an interview on Tuesday, he said he's leaning against approving the student-athlete policy when it's revisited at the board's Nov. 8 meeting. But Birchenough and Truban said at the meeting they'd consider voting for the policy if more specifics on how testing will be done are provided.
The plans calls for testing to be done at schools with vendors authorized by the Virginia Department of Education.
"It's not because I don't support the action that's been laid out," Truban said. "I would just like to have a little bit more information and ensure that we feel like we can execute on this. Especially right at the beginning of [sports] tryouts."
Birchenough also said he wasn't opposed to the policy, but "I feel like I'm voting on something that I don't necessarily know how it's going to work."
Crawford read a letter from hundreds of area doctors and healthcare providers published in Saturday's edition of The Winchester Star urging people to get vaccinated. It noted hospitals locally and nationally have been inundated with COVID-19 patients and 85% are unvaccinated. Through Monday, the virus has killed 13,793 Virginians, according to the Virginia Department of Health. They include 545 people in the Lord Fairfax Health District, which encompasses Winchester as well as Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.
The student-athlete policy would affect roughly 200 Handley High School students and 70 Daniel Morgan Middle School students, according to Doug Joyner, the school division's human resources director. Pearce-Gonzales said the sooner the policy is passed, the faster parents considering getting their children vaccinated will do so. That reduces the possibility of teams not being able to field players.
Anderson Holman emphasized staff and students aren't being mandated to get vaccinated. She said the policy will help ensure the "well being and safety" of everyone.
Joyner said about 62% of WPS employees are vaccinated, with vaccination defined by the division as at least one shot. About 70% of the 750 full-time WPS employees are vaccinated and about 49% of the 430 part-timers. Between 300 and 400 staff would need to be tested. He said the goal is to make testing as convenient and quick as possible.
Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum said focus groups were done with staff and most were "very supportive" of the policies. But the only two speakers during the meeting's public comment portion criticized it.
Mark Stickley, Handley's boys' and girls' cross country coach and a father of three WPS students, said he's never had so much as a flu shot and noted the coronavirus has a 98% survival rate.
He cited the Oct. 17 death of former general and Secretary of State Colin Powell as an example of a vaccinated person who died from COVID. But Reuters noted the 84-year-old Powell suffered from multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that made him highly vulnerable to the virus.
The COVOD-19 survival rate is far lower for elderly people or for those with pre-existing conditions, according to public health experts. And they caution the long-term effects of contracting COVID-19 are unknown.
Stephen Meyerhoffer, who said his wife is a WPS employee, said no WPS students or staff have died from the virus and the transmission rate in the division is decreasing. Meyerhoffer said he's vaccinated, but he's concerned about unforeseen, long-term side effects of the vaccine. He said some staff may be afraid to criticize the policy fearing they may be fired.
"If it isn't broke, don't fix it," Meyerhoffer said. "It doesn't matter if people's opposition to the vaccine is based on fact or misinformation. People are free to make bad decisions."
WPS is the first local division to approve a vaccinate-or-test policy for staff.
Clarke County Public Schools Superintendent Chuck Bishop said in a Tuesday email that his division isn't considering a requirement for staff or students, saying vaccination is a "personal choice." He said 81% of CCPS staff are vaccinated. Citing VDH statistics, he said 41% of Clarke County children between 12-15 are vaccinated and about 54% of those 16-17.
Steve Edwards, Frederick County Public Schools spokesman, said his division is considering a voluntary policy for student-athletes. Edwards said the division doesn't track how many staff or students are vaccinated.