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Detroit school district moves closer to a vaccine mandate for staff

A close-up photo of a person’s hands wearing blue latex gloves, preparing a syringe for a COVID-19 vaccination.
During Tuesday’s board meeting, members gave a first reading of a draft mandate that specifies a Feb. 18 deadline for district employees to be fully vaccinated.
Emily Elconin / Chalkbeat

The Detroit school board moved a step closer to adopting a new policy that would require all district staff members be fully vaccinated before the end of the school year.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, members gave a first reading of a draft mandate that specifies a Feb. 18 deadline for district employees to be fully vaccinated. Those who don’t comply risk losing their jobs, though there would be exemptions for medical or religious reasons, according to the draft.

All district policies must be reviewed by the board twice before they can be approved. The board is expected to take the final step during a retreat Thursday.

District vaccine mandates for staff are rare in Michigan, which had the fifth largest number of COVID cases per capita in the country over the last week. The Biden administration’s vaccine requirement for employees of large organizations is tied up in court. While local districts have the power to impose their own mandates, few schools have done so.

School districts across the state are struggling with staffing vacancies and substitute teacher shortages that could worsen if staff fall ill with COVID and have to stay home.

Vaccination rates in Detroit remain low. About 44% of city residents ages 5 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, a lower rate than the rest of Wayne County and Michigan, which tout 68% and 62% vaccination rates, respectively.

The first reading is used as an opportunity for school board members to provide feedback or edits prior to the approval of a policy, Misha Stallworth-West, a board member and head of the policy committee, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

“When we think about our district and we think about protecting our students, protecting our families but also protecting our staff, we’re moving this forward because we think it is important,” said Stallworth-West.

“We also understand that as younger people and children perhaps are not getting vaccinated at the same rates as adults, it actually is helpful to protect our staff from some of the environments that they may be in.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti echoed his support of an employee vaccine mandate during the meeting, considering it one of many efforts to “keep students in school learning Monday through Friday.”

Vitti said 150 unvaccinated people have tested for COVID since the beginning of the school year and those cases have contributed to more than 480 students and 99 staff members having to quarantine. The Detroit school district conducts weekly COVID tests for both students and staff. Testing is required for staff and optional for students.

The district is also looking into the legality of a vaccine mandate for students, Vitti said, with the plans for a potential fall 2022 deadline for students to be fully vaccinated.

None of the board members voiced objection to the draft policy during the school board meeting.

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