Starting Tuesday, Oregon school employees were required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Staff inside schools who hadn’t gotten vaccinated or hadn’t received a valid exemption weren’t allowed to come into work, following a statewide vaccination mandate set by Gov. Kate Brown.
Gov. Jay Inslee in Washington enacted a similar rule, with the same Oct. 18 deadline.
According to Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill, the mandate’s impact on school operations was minimal.
“All of our school districts were able to remain open and serving students in person,” Gill said during a state board of education meeting Thursday.
Among Oregon’s largest school districts, vaccination rates range from a low of 72% in Klamath County to a high of 98.6% in Lake Oswego.
Gill said having high rates of vaccinated staff helps stabilize schools from quarantines and other potential COVID-19 impacts.
“That provides better protection for them, it provides better protection for the students that are in that space — the mostly unvaccinated students that are in that space.”
COVID-19 vaccines have not been approved for children under 12, and Oregonians between the ages of 12 and 18 are among the least likely to be vaccinated in the state.
The relatively high vaccination rates don’t mean that schools didn’t lose staff, though, or that school this week wasn’t affected. Eugene 4J students, for example, had Monday off for a “vaccine mandate transition” day.
As of Thursday, 96.1% of Eugene 4J’s staff are fully vaccinated, with the district still working through 104 exemption requests. Some of those requests have been denied or withdrawn, while others are pending. So far, 26 have been approved.
Leading up to the Oct. 18 deadline, districts asked employees to share their vaccine status in surveys, or by submitting forms online. Employees seeking a medical exemption had to provide a document signed by a medical provider. For a religious exemption, individuals had to share a statement describing how the COVID-19 vaccination conflicts with a “sincerely held religious belief.”
Many districts reported 100% compliance with the mandate, but that only means they either received proof of vaccination or approved exemptions for employees.
Employees include anyone that works in a school — from teachers to custodians to support staff to district administrators.
In some districts, officials say the vaccine mandate gave employers an opportunity to share information about the vaccine with staff.
“We were able to partner with local doctors to offer a virtual webinar and Q&A opportunity to staff, as well as multiple vaccination clinics on-site for those who wanted to receive a vaccine,” said Kristin Hosfelt with the Grants Pass School District.
In Grants Pass, 616 of the school district’s 812 eligible employees were vaccinated, or about 76%, while 170 employees, or 21% received exemptions. Nineteen staff members retired, resigned or took an unpaid leave of absence — that’s less than 3% of staff.
Several districts sent out messages thanking employees for cooperating with the state’s mandates.
“Battle Ground Public Schools is thankful that nearly all staff have fulfilled the requirements of the mandate, and our district will be able to continue our important mission of educating and supporting our students without disruptions to services,” read a statement from officials at the Battle Ground School District in Clark County, Washington.
Oregon officials use the term “exception” to describe employees sharing medical or religious reasons for not getting vaccinated. In Washington, “exemption” is used. OPB is using the word “exemption” for both states, for consistency.
Most districts approved all exemptions requested. At least three school districts did not. Portland Public Schools had 158 requested exemptions, but only approved 111. Salem-Keizer School District had 499 requested, and approved 487. So far, Eugene 4J has rejected 27.
In the David Douglas School District District, officials say one employee’s exemption was denied, and the person then got vaccinated.
In Hillsboro, one religious exemption was initially rejected because the request was “cut and pasted from another source,” officials said. The person was given the opportunity to re-submit.
In Klamath County, 26% of staff received exemptions. In Roseburg, it’s 23%. Other districts that reported more than 10% of staff receiving exemptions include Medford, Redmond, Grants Pass, and North Bend, as well as Battle Ground Public Schools in Washington.
Across the state, the majority of exemptions were religious ones.
Under Oregon’s rule, schools must take “reasonable steps” to ensure that vaccinated staff are “protected from contracting and spreading COVID-19.” Washington’s regulation has a similar note.
In most districts, that means requiring unvaccinated staff to wear a more protective mask, like an N95 or KN95, at all times. It also means eating alone, away from shared spaces. Some schools offered or tried to move unvaccinated employees into positions where they wouldn’t interact with others as much.
In most Oregon districts, being unvaccinated with an exemption also means being tested regularly for COVID-19 through a school program or showing proof of a negative test weekly. There are a few exceptions: In West Linn-Wilsonville and Grants Pass, employees can choose between additional PPE or testing. Roseburg requires a medical grade mask, two masks combined, or a regular mask with an “inside layer filter.”
Other safety measures school districts will require of unvaccinated staff include self-screening and maintaining a physical distance of six feet.
Unvaccinated school employees in southwest Washington “may be subject” to testing in two districts, Evergreen and Vancouver. Battle Ground is not requiring weekly testing.
Almost every district that responded to OPB’s request for information reported losing at least one staffer. They represent different departments in school — teachers, bus drivers, paraeducators, nutrition service workers, and others. In Hillsboro, for example, one teacher left the district due to non-compliance, as well as nine support staff.
Some school district non-compliance numbers include coaches or substitutes. They’re among the 138 employees in Portland Public Schools on unpaid leave, pending termination.
Of the 28 Oregon and southwest Washington districts that responded to OPB’s request for vaccination mandate information, at least seven reported losing 10 or more staff members. West Linn-Wilsonville declined to provide the number of non-compliant staff “at risk of identifying individuals.”
In a few districts, staff who are still in the vaccination process may be considered out of compliance with the vaccine mandate, including employees in PPS, David Douglas, North Bend, and Salem-Keizer.