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Schools prepare for mandates

Mail tribune photo illustration / Jamie Lusch
Mail tribune photo illustration / Jamie Lusch

Local school district officials spent much of the last week assessing staffing levels and coming up with contingency plans to address the possibility that some teachers might resign following Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate that health care workers and K-12 educators be vaccinated for COVID-19 in order to continue working.

In July, Brown announced that all K-12 students would be required to wear masks

Most superintendents in the region said they were committed to keeping students safe and hopeful for a minimal number of staffing losses resulting from the new rule.

The mandate allows for religious or medical exemptions, which some districts expect will be utilized to some degree. Updated information provided Thursday by the Oregon Health Authority included language requiring schools to “take reasonable steps to ensure that unvaccinated teachers, school staff and volunteers are protected from contracting and spreading COVID-19.”

Gov. Brown announced the vaccine mandate for health care workers and educators last Thursday in response to a record surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, deaths and positive test results around the state.

Already busy getting students back to school this week after two school years hindered by pandemic restrictions and distance learning, local school district officials displayed eagerness to keep kids on campus.

Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion said Friday that his district would comply with Gov. Kate Brown’s vaccine mandate.

Champion said his district was ironing out the specific ways his district would implement the mandate.

Already grappling with bus shortages and other staffing woes, he said his primary focus was to keep kids and teachers on board with in-person learning and to lose as few staff as possible.

Champion pointed out that language included in the mandate requires districts to provide consideration for unvaccinated staff, whether by providing increased space for social distancing, increased PPE or more frequent COVID-19 testing. He said his district would likely opt for the increased testing, which he hoped to see employees handle from home.

Champion said he had high hopes for a regular sports season this year, spectators included. Asked if he would require vaccinations for spectators, Champion said no.

“Everybody will be required to wear a mask as spectators. That’s going to be how we kick this season off and that will be the requirement to come in the door,” he said.

“We’ll have folks reminding people to wear a mask. Even if you’re able to get 6 feet of distancing … we don’t have enough staff right now to work the games, just taking tickets and dealing with their normal thing. This idea that we would have people to go and make sure people are standing 6 feet apart … we’re just taking a very simple approach.”

Spectators who refuse to wear masks at sporting events, Champion noted, will be asked to leave.

“If they refuse to follow the requirements of being at one of our events … we’ll be happy to escort them nicely off our property.

“We all remember what it was like a year ago when we would have soccer matches and no spectators. ... We want to let our parents and grandparents and friends and neighbors come see our kids.”

Champion said he did not expect to lose teachers due to the mandate. Teaching numbers, he said, “are solid,” though shortages are being experienced in other categories, such as transportation and janitorial.

“We’re not seeing a huge number of folks who want to walk away right now because of the vaccine mandate,” he said.

Like other districts, Champion said, Medford was still figuring out the ins and outs of the mandate and working to keep everyone safe and employed.

“Our goal is to not turn people away,” he said.

“Our goal is to bring people in.”

New Central Point School District 6 Superintendent Walt Davenport said his district was excited, mandate or not, to have teachers and students back in the classroom. Davenport said staffing shortages were already a reality, but he said he was hopeful they would retain most district employees going forward.

“I haven’t had any indication yet of how our employees will react, but I think people are still digesting it. With the timing of this coming out right now, with an Oct. 18 deadline for being fully vaccinated, that really puts a lot of pressure on folks to make their decisions very quickly,” Davenport said.

“You’re considered fully vaccinated 14 days after the second dose (of the two-part shot). People who don’t claim one of the exemptions would need to make a decision to get vaccinated in the next couple of weeks.”

Eagle Point School District 9 spokesperson Dean MacInnis said school employees seemed to be a “mixed bag” in regard to vaccination rates and the new mandate.

“There’s a lot of concern on all sides. We’ve got a handful of parents who don’t want their kids masked, and a lot of parents who are more concerned about the safety of keeping school open,” said McInnis.

“We’ve been working with HR to gather an idea of where our staff numbers are for vaccination rates. We have people talking about being vaccinated and unvaccinated at this point, so there’s definitely a mix there. I wouldn’t say we’re worried about any kind of mass exodus or anything, but ... there is some concern of some employees potentially leaving over their stance on vaccinations.”

As of Aug. 22, 59.1% of Jackson County adults had been vaccinated, according to the Oregon Health Authority. The state’s goal is for 80% of adults to be vaccinated, so Jackson County still needed to vaccinate roughly 37,000 people to reach the goal as of early this week.

Ashland School District Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove said that, despite his district being known for historically low vaccination rates, officials there had been proactive in their bid “to protect students.”

“Ashland had, the day before the governor’s announcement, already announced we were going to be requiring vaccines for all of our staff. We are very much committed to the notion that we’ve got to provide a healthy and safe environment for our kids, so we had already started to move in that direction independent of the governor’s announcement,” Bogdanove said.

“Health care, obviously, is an individual choice, but it’s our job is to make sure schools are safe and healthy places for our kids. Historically our community has had some of the lowest vaccination rates in Jackson County, which has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state. We obviously expect to have some folks — whether as a matter of faith or personal belief or for health reasons — who will have concerns, and we will just treat those individuals respectfully in making the decisions that they need to make.

“A lot of these things related to this pandemic are inconveniences,” Bogdanove added. “Nobody likes to be told what to do, and nobody likes wearing masks. But the bottom line is we want our kids in school and we want them to be safe. If these are the things we have to do to accomplish those things, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.