By Heather Smith Craig
The Sept. 2 meeting of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education opened with an update from Dr. Danny Benjamin, Co-chair of the ABC Science Collaborative, on vaccine history, vaccine mandates, COVID-19 vaccine safety data and its implications for quarantine.
Dr Benjamin began by discussing a recent COVID-19 outbreak in a Marin County, CA elementary school, in which an unvaccinated and symptomatic teacher read aloud indoors to her students, who were unmasked. In the wake of the event, 26 people — 18 students and 8 siblings and/or parents of the students — contracted the virus. The 18 infected students were ineligible for the vaccine due to their age. The teacher had kept the door and windows of her classroom open and used a HEPA air filter, practices which Dr. Benjamin emphasized have not been proven to prevent COVID transmission in schools. By contrast, the two practices the teacher did not follow, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated, have been proven to help prevent the spread of COVID 19 in a school setting.
“80% of the public needs to be vaccinated for public safety,” Dr. Benjamin stated, a number that historically has never been achieved without a vaccination mandate. Public health professionals predict that, between May 2022 and May 2023, every American will be infected, vaccinated or both. “In those who are vaccinated, COVID becomes much less dangerous than influenza.” Dr. Benjamin continued. “In an unmasked environment, having adults be vaccinated will substantially reduce the risk of children acquiring COVID.”
As to the safety of the available vaccines against COVID-19, Dr Benjamin said, “(The mRNA vaccine) has a stronger safety track record than any medical product sold in the USA. It has a stronger safety record than anything else you can put in your body,” including water.
When asked whether a staff vaccine mandate in a masked school environment would reduce the incidence of secondary infections, quarantine and illness, Dr. Benjamin replied, “Yes, yes, and yes. The data support all three … It would keep people out of the hospital, which is now incredibly important.”
CHCCS Chief Human Resources Officer Erika Newkirk, and CHCCS Chief of School Support and Wellness Dr. Charlos Banks reported that 77% of district staff have completed the vaccination status attestation survey, which closes Sept. 10. Of 1,546 staff members who have completed the survey, 1,445 report being vaccinated. Ms. Newkirk said that, if a vaccine mandate were adopted, potentially 20% of staff could be out of compliance.
Board member Mary Ann Wolf reminded those in attendance that complying with vaccine mandates has always been a condition of employment in CHCCS and stated that by adding the FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine to the list of those already required the district would be following the science and exhibiting consistency. She therefore supported a recommendation to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine.
Board member Ashton Powell pointed out that many of the public comments reflected the desire to vaccinate the bodies of other people, people who may have a historically sound reason to be hesitant (Mr. Powell referenced the North Carolina Eugenics Board and Tuskegee syphilis trials). He asked that the administration utilize the Racial Equity Impact Assessment tool before implementing a mandate to help communities and students who may be negatively impacted by the mandate and may not want to comply due to earned distrust of the medical community. He said, “We may be opening up old wounds that we never addressed and don’t want to [exacerbate].”
CHCCS attorney Ken Soo interjected that there is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance that states, “As with any employment policy, employers that have a vaccine requirement may need to respond to allegations that the requirement has a disparate impact on or disproportionately excludes employees based on their race, color, religion, sex or national origin under Title 7 or age under ADEA. Employers should keep in mind that some individuals or demographic groups may face greater barriers to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination than others, and some employees may be negatively impacted by a vaccination requirement.”
As discussion continued, it became clear that a process by which to vet medical and religious exemptions would be necessary, and would need to involve medical outreach to address barriers in addition to vaccination clinics.
Board member Lisa Kaylie asked, “What do we do now for teachers or staff who do not meet the vaccination requirements?” Attorney Soo replied that they could not be employed at CHCCS as they would not meet the requirements. It is unclear what would happen if a CHCCS employee refused to be vaccinated by the Oct. 31 deadline.
Board chairperson Jillian LaSerna asked how we can create the safest environment for our students and staff, and the response from the ABC Science Collaborative presentation was multiple layers of mitigation.
Following the discussion period, board member Mary Ann Wolf moved to adopt a vaccine mandate for all CHCCS staff with a goal of having all staff vaccinated by Oct. 31. Implementation of the mandate will include vaccination clinics, medical Q & A sessions, and the development of a process for vetting exemptions. The motion was approved unanimously by the four board members present (Deon Temne and Rani Dasi were absent).
CHCCS is the second North Carolina school district to implement a vaccine mandate. Orange County Schools adopted a policy during its Aug. 16 Board of Education meeting to mandate vaccines within 30 days of the vaccines receiving FDA approval. Durham Public Schools have not ruled out the idea of a vaccine mandate and held a special meeting Aug. 31 to discuss the idea but chose instead to focus on encouraging staff to get vaccinated.