WINCHESTER — School Board members are considering requiring Winchester Public Schools staff and student-athletes to get vaccinated for the coronavirus or get tested weekly.
"This is not a mandate as this testing option exists," board member Bryan Pearce-Gonzales said at the board's Monday work session. "You either get the vaccine or submit proof of your test. Nobody's going to be fired if they don't get the vaccine."
However, Doug Joyner, human resources director, told board members the policy is an either/or requirement: Employees who don't get vaccinated or show proof of testing won't work and student-athletes who don't comply won't play.
"We're going to have to develop protocols and procedures and reviews in each of those cases," he said, adding that medical or religious exemptions from vaccinations may be granted under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The policy may be voted on at the board's Oct. 27 meeting. If approved, unvaccinated employees and student-athletes will be tested through the Virginia School Screening Testing for Assurance. VISTA is a partnership between the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Department of Health involving vendors conducting the tests. Unvaccinated students or staff can provide a formal lab report of a negative test, but Joyner said the goal is to do most testing at schools to streamline the process.
Board members said testing student-athletes would be required because athletics are voluntary. Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum said student-athletes could begin getting tested in mid-November. A date for employees hasn't been set.
"Testing is the key," he said. "If we can't get that under wraps and really feel good about that, this whole thing doesn't really work very well."
About 62% of WPS employees are vaccinated, with vaccination defined by Joyner as at least one shot. Of the 750 full-time WPS employees, Joyner said 682, or 90%, are vaccinated. Of the 430 part-timers, about 51% are vaccinated.
The percentage of vaccinated full-time employees far exceeds the U.S. rate. About 56% of the nation's 330 million population are fully vaccinated, according to a Washington Post analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. About 65% have received at least one shot. In Virginia, it's 61% and 68%. In the Lord Fairfax Health District — where 507 people have died from COVID-19 since April 24 of last year — it's 47% and 53%.
Unvaccinated staff have taken nearly four times as many sick days as vaccinated staff, according to school division statistics. Twenty-six unvaccinated staffers took 157 COVID-related sick days compared to 12 vaccinated staffers who took 43 days. Besides isolating due to testing positive, the COVID-related absences were for quarantining after being exposed to someone who tested positive or exposed to someone displaying virus symptoms.
Children 12 and over can get vaccinated, but like adults in the district, the percentage who have in Winchester is low. Citing health department statistics, Judy McKiernan, director of student services, said 977 city youths between 12-17 are vaccinated, about 47%. That includes WPS students as well as home-schooled and private school students.
The school division, which requires students and staff to wear masks indoors, has about 4,100 students. Through Monday, eight were isolating due to being diagnosed positive and 83 were quarantining due to exposure to someone with the virus.
Board member Elyus Wallace worries parents who refuse to allow their children to get vaccinated will cost their kids a chance to play. But Pearce-Gonzales said it might give student-athletes who want to avoid the hassle of weekly testing "leverage" with their parents to get vaccinated.
Board member Erica Truban noted unvaccinated student-athletes who come in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID are subject to 10-day quarantines, meaning it may be hard to field teams. She said anything the board can do to make the policy more understandable will move reluctant parents "over the finish line" to getting their children vaccinated.
But three people who wrote letters to the board, read aloud by Vice Chairwoman Karen Anderson Holman, oppos a vaccine requirement.
One writer cited a debunked claim that the vaccine is dangerous for pregnant women. Another noted rare cases of heart inflammation among young people who've been vaccinated. The third said people who survive being infected with the virus no longer need the vaccine, citing "natural immunity." Citing a study in Kentucky, the CDC said in August that unvaccinated people are more than twice as likely to get re-infected with the virus than vaccinated people.
The policy discussion comes amid the highly infectious delta variant causing a spike in deaths. The virus has killed some 4.8 million people globally. Among them are 715,000 Americans, including about 13,200 Virginians.
The variant is also deluging hospitals with unvaccinated patients, including at Winchester Medical Center. Board member Carmen Crawford noted overwhelmed WMC staff are begging people to get vaccinated.
Joyner said if the requirement is implemented, it would help assure parents that their children are learning in the safest possible environment and set a good example for the community.
"The sooner our community reaches a higher vaccination rate, the sooner we can be able to restore normal school operations," he said.