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Will COVID Vaccines Be Mandatory For New Orleans Public School Staff? It Depends Where They Work

Chris Taylor
New Orleans charter schools like Edna Karr High School, which welcomed students back in early August, won't have to follow the district's proposed staff vaccine mandate. Aug. 2, 2021.

New Orleans Public Schools will require its staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine pending a school board vote. While the district is one of the largest in the state, the decision would impact just 200 people if approved.

That’s because the vast majority of the city’s 8,000 public school employees are employed directly by charter operators and not by the district. New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said hiring is decentralized, so the district can only mandate the vaccine for its central office staff.

School district officials said they hope the announcement will send a clear message to individual charter operators to issue their own COVID-19 vaccine policies.

"We actually hope that our leadership ... will push more of our schools to make that mandate as well," Delcour said at a press conference Thursday.

Of the district's 36 charter operators, Crescent City Schools is the only one with a staff vaccine mandate. The operator's founder and CEO Kate Mehok said the charter has a 99.9 percent vaccination rate after implementing the staff mandate in June.

“We knew we would have a large population of students who were unvaccinated, so we thought to ourselves, ‘What is the thing we can do as adults to ensure that we're keeping our students as safe as possible?'” Mehok said in an interview Thursday afternoon. “The thing we came upon was we can all get vaccinated.”

Crescent City Schools operates three pre-K through eighth grade schools. The vast majority of its 2,500 students are under 12 years of age and are therefore not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Out of the charter’s 350-person staff, two employees remain unvaccinated because they qualified for medical or religious accommodations. A handful of former staff members left over the mandate, Mehok said.

Delcour said other charter operators are in the process of mandating the vaccine for staff members. Some policymakers have argued the vaccine cannot be required while under emergency use authorization, but so far employer-adopted mandates have held up in court.

Still, some school have said they'll hold off of on issuing a vaccine mandate for staff or students until the Food and Drug Administration grants its full approval.

More U.S. Schools Now Mandating Vaccines

Teacher vaccine policies have become increasingly common in recent weeks, with more districts moving to enact mandates after Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser on COVID-19, endorsed the requirement during an interview on MSNBC last week.

The next day, California announced that it would require public and private K-12 teachers and staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine or consent to weekly testing. Other states have yet to follow suit. Individual districts in New York, Colorado and Washington, D.C. already have staff vaccine mandates.

On the other end of the spectrum, some states have passed legislation preventing districts from issuing vaccine mandates for students or staff. Louisiana’s legislature passed a bill prohibiting “discrimination based on vaccination or immunity status,” but Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed it.

New Orleans is the only district in Louisiana considering an employee vaccine mandate. Meanwhile, districts in other parts of the state are sparring over the state’s reinstated mask mandate instead.

The city's new partial vaccine mandate, which requires businesses to obtain proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test, applies to people participating in high-risk activities, including indoor dining, fitness and entertainment.

Schools are not included in that order because "most schools have additional mitigation measures that exceed general businesses," including "widespread testing, contact tracing, cohorting [and] cleaning efforts," according to a city spokesperson.

The spokesperson also referenced the decision on behalf of New Orleans public high schools to require vaccinations or regular testing for students participating in extracurricular activities.

“These are the higher risk activities of the school day,” the spokesperson said in an email Friday, adding that the city believes the vaccination rate among teachers, staff and students to be upwards of 80 percent.

At Benjamin Franklin High School, 99 percent of teachers and staff are vaccinated.

More than 95 percent of faculty and staff are vaccinated at Frederick A. Douglas High School, which is operated by KIPP New Orleans. Across KIPP’s nine schools, more than 83 percent of faculty and staff are vaccinated, said Quo Vadis Sylve Hollins, the charter operator’s director of communications.

The district is collecting vaccination data from all of its schools and will make the information available to the public in September, Delcour said.

NOLA-PS Pushes Vaccines To Keep Classrooms Open

Pediatric COVID cases are on the rise in Louisiana and now account for 25 percent of new daily cases. The state’s aggressive surge, which outpaces all other states in the nation, has cast doubt on the ability of schools to safely reopen.

Officials said the percentage of 12 to 17 year olds who have received at least one dose of the vaccine is not far below the rate for the city’s adult population which is 75 percent. Statewide, just 13 percent of 12 to 17 year olds have received the vaccine.

Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the city’s health director, said late last week that the city’s youth vaccination rate has shot up in recent weeks. Since July 1, the youth vaccination rate has increased by 67 percent, Avegno said.

Mia Lett said she got vaccinated as soon as she was eligible, but held off on taking her 14-year-old daughter to get the shot until it was time to head back to school.

“I definitely wasn't going to do it right away,” Lett said. “I wanted to see if I heard of any reactions or side effects in kids, so I waited.”

But as the first day of school drew closer, Lett said she realized it was time.

For parents with children who are still too young to be vaccinated, back-to-school has brought considerable anxiety. All students are required to learn in-person this year, though schools are expected to work with families with qualifying medical conditions.

A growing number of parents have publicly questioned whether it is safe for schools to remain open amid the surge, but public health officials have said nothing to suggest schools will close.

At Governor John Bel Edwards’ press conference Friday, the state's top medical official, Dr. Joseph Kanter, said the state is not considering shutting down schools as a way to slow delta’s spread because last year in-classroom transmission was incredibly rare.

Even though the delta variant is more transmissible than earlier strains, Kanter said there’s no reason to believe the situation will be different this year as long as layers of protection remain in place, including masking, high vaccination rates among eligible students and staff, social distancing, contact tracing and surveillance testing.

Ensuring high vaccination rates among staff and eligible students has been a key component of the district’s back-to-school strategy. When Louisiana teachers gained vaccine eligibility in late February, NOLA-PS immediately helped coordinate appointments for the more than 5,000 staff members at local health providers and later stood up mobile vaccine clinics across the city’s schools.

The district sponsored vaccine clinics throughout the summer for eligible students and their families. Vaccines were available at many of the city’s summer school programs and some back-to-school events. More than 1,000 students were vaccinated, according to the district.

Last week, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced $90,000 in private funding to help sustain the district’s youth vaccination initiative.

“These dollars will allow us to meet our young people where they are,” Cantrell said. “We do not have time to waste.”

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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