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Board of Ed members spar over details of vaccine mandate

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CCSD
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Members of the Clarke County Board of Education differed sharply over the details of a proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate for school district staff at their work session last night. After over half an hour of discussion and disagreement, Board of Education members sent the proposed vaccination policy back to its Policy Committee for more work in advance of next week’s meeting, where it may or may not advance to the next stage in the process, a four week period of public comment before a final vote from the Board of Education.

According to the draft policy in front of the BOE, district employees would have to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination, although they could claim a medical or religious exemption. Right now, there are around 700 district employees who are not vaccinated.

Unvaccinated employees would have to undergo regular testing. Board member Patricia Yager, who chairs the Policy Committee, said, “The goal here is not to be punitive at all, but to make sure that our kids can [have] face to face instruction in January.”

It's that testing component for unvaccinated staffers which caused friction among board members - not the testing itself, but the possible cost, which could reach up to $150,000 per month. That number comes from Yager’s suggestion of using saliva tests processed by the University of Georgia.

"That's the model of efficiency that I presented to the [Policy] Committee,” Yager told Board members. “Now that doesn't have to be that. What they said was that very, very efficient system costs about $50 per test.”

Superintendent Xerona Thomas said that she and other administrators were concerned about the cost as well as the impact of a potential testing mandate on an already understaffed school district.

One way to reduce the potential cost is to reduce the frequency of testing to once per week. District 1’s Greg Davis also suggested that employees be tested through the Department of Public Health. "It may not be the gold standard, but it wouldn't cost the the school district anything,” Davis said.

But Yager argued that it wasn't the job of the Board of Education to decide how the testing would be carried out. “The policy does not outline the procedure, which would be the district’s responsibility to come up with,” said Yager.

Mumbi Anderson cautioned her colleagues not to expect the number of unvaccinated employees to go down significantly, even with a mandate.

“If 700 people have refused $500 as a carrot to get vaccinated, then my only assumption would be that a large number of them would refuse to get vaccinated with this mandate,” Anderson said. She also suggested that a mandate by itself might not be particularly effective, given that children under 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated and less than half of eligible teenage students are vaccinated.

She suggested a survellance testing component to augment the policy. “It's kind of worth considering if this is the type of mandate that we want to put forward, that it also has a surveillance testing component to it because then you are seriously, from a public health perspective, saying we value our efforts to reduce transmission rates.”

Yager pushed back against that idea. “What I heard during the past year is that the reasons the schools shut down was not because the kids were getting sick,” Yager said. “It was because the staff was sick and that we could not maintain the staff. Is that not correct?”

It remains uncertain whether board members will take up the issue at their meeting next Thursday. District 3's Linda Davis, who chaired the work session, suggested that the policy wasn't ready for a vote, and questioned whether Policy Committee members could get it into shape in the next week. If the BOE chooses to move ahead with the policy, the next step will be a vote to make the proposal available for public comment for a period of four weeks, after which the plan might go through another round of revisions before a final vote, putting the resolution of the issue months in the future.

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