WINCHESTER — The Winchester School Board is beginning to consider COVID-19 vaccine requirements among the division’s staff.
The board has not taken any action on the matter.
During a Monday night Winchester School Board meeting, WPS Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum emphasized he was not ready to make a recommendation about a vaccine policy for staff, but he wanted to give the board an opportunity to discuss it.
As of Monday, there are 10 school divisions in Virginia implementing vaccine requirements, said Doug Joyner, WPS’ director of human resources.
Joyner shared that 62% of WPS employees are vaccinated, according to data provided through Valley Health System. He added that this figure does not include about 60 to 70 people who are new employees with the division, as the data was collected about a month ago. Joyner noted the data does not include if a WPS staff member received a vaccine from a provider other than Valley Health.
With all of that taken into consideration, Joyner said 70% of the division's 750 full-time employees are vaccinated, while 49% of part-time staff are vaccinated. Among WPS classroom staff, 78% of teachers and 79% of teaching assistants are vaccinated.
The FDA fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in August. Children under the age of 12 are still not eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Joyner added that while he was not making a recommendation, he said some options for the board to consider as a policy could be mandatory vaccine requirements or a policy that strongly encourages and incentivizes staff members to get vaccinated.
From an operational standpoint, Van Heukelum explained that staff who are not vaccinated have to quarantine when exposed to COVID-19, which makes it harder for the schools to keep functioning.
“When they are not vaccinated and they have to quarantine, that puts a burden on the school to continue just to function, whereas if you are vaccinated you don’t have to quarantine,” Van Heukelum said.
He added that while he’s happy to hear that about 80% of classroom staff are vaccinated, that means there are about 20%, or 80 staff members, working in classrooms that still don’t have a vaccine yet. There have already been cases this school year where unvaccinated WPS staff members have needed to quarantine for a significant time, Van Heukelum said.
“When that happens it creates holes in the ability to make school happen everyday,” he said.
Board member Erica Truban asked that if the topic comes up again before the board, that administrators provide data showing the percentage of staff who are partially and fully vaccinated.
She added that it’s important to be mindful of a need for potential booster shots for eligible staff in the near future. Truban also said it’s important to consider that if the division delays a decision for mandatory vaccines, that will mean it will take longer for all staff to be fully vaccinated by a set deadline, because the COVID-19 vaccine takes time to become fully effective.
“We want to be thoughtful and deliberate, but every two to three weeks this is pushed to another board meeting, you’re four to five weeks out from the staff and then subsequently the students that we’re concerned about not being able to be fully vaccinated,” Truban said.
First and foremost, Winchester School Board Vice Chairwoman Karen Anderson Holman said the safety and well-being of students, particularly those who are too young to get vaccinated, should be prioritized first.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that without making some requirements,” Anderson Holman said.
She added that while the vaccine does not fully protect a person from contracting COVID-19, it strongly prevents a person from dying from it.
Van Heukelum said that there is a balance between potentially rushing a vaccine requirement or waiting too long to implement one. He said there may be staff employees who may resign if the division required vaccines. Board member Bryan Pearce-Gonzales added that while there may be attrition, requiring a vaccine may also help recruit teachers who find that a vaccine mandate is an attractive quality in a school division.
In other business, the board voted 6-0 to approve temporary telework procedures for staff who are out for COVID-19- related absences for 10 to 14 days.
The board further approved in a 6-0 vote to only permit employees with proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to receive COVID-19 leave benefits if the employee is unable to work, including via telework, because the employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine related to COVID-19; is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking a medical diagnosis; or is caring for their child who is subject to quarantine or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
Attending Monday night’s Winchester School Board work session at the Central Administrative Office at 12 N. Washington St. were WPS Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum, School Board Chairwoman Marie Imoh, School Board Vice Chairwoman Karen Anderson Holman and board members Bryan Pearce-Gonzales, Mike Birchenough, Erica Truban and Carmen Crawford. Board member Elyus Wallace was not present. The meeting was held in-person and streamed online via YouTube.