Schools mixed on shot mandate

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/13/2021 9:13:36 PM
Modified: 12/13/2021 9:13:01 PM

LEBANON — The Lebanon School Board approved a memorandum of agreement with the district’s teachers on COVID-19 safety last week, but a vaccination mandate is not one of the items.

Public schools in New Hampshire are barred from instituting a vaccine requirement for employees by a state law which Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed in July. In contrast, the Hartford School District and the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, both on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley, announced vaccination mandates for employees in September.

“While the board did have a couple short discussions about (requiring vaccines), it never came to us for action,” Lebanon School Board Chairman Dick Milius said.

Lebanon schools do “strongly encourage” vaccination, however, he said. “We would like all of our teachers and staff to be vaccinated if they can be.”

The New Hampshire law bars schools from requiring schools and other public entities, except for medical facilities, from requiring vaccines. An exception is made for childhood vaccines required for admission to schools and child care facilities.

“Every person has the natural, essential, and inherent right to bodily integrity, free from any threat or compulsion by government to accept an immunization,” the text of the law reads.

It’s difficult to gauge the law’s effect on vaccine uptake in New Hampshire schools. The Department of Health and Human Services isn’t tracking vaccine uptake by profession, said Jake Leon, a department spokesman.

“While data on differences in school impact by community vaccination rates is not available, it’s important for all schools to continue to implement mitigation measures, regardless of vaccination rate or rate of community transmission,” Leon said.

The New Hampshire and Vermont chapters of the National Education Association, as well as the national teachers union, came out in support of vaccine mandates for school employees this summer as the delta variant began to hit the Twin States and case counts began to rise.

“We believe that such vaccine requirements and accommodations are an appropriate, responsible, and necessary step to ensure the safety of our school communities and to protect our students,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in an August statement.

At the time, nearly 90% of NEA members were vaccinated.

Some health experts have argued that mandates are an important part of combating the pandemic. Anne Sosin, a policy fellow and public health expert at Dartmouth College, said, “workplace vaccine requirements are a critical tool for protecting high-risk members of communities and also in closing gaps in vaccination.”

Anchor employers such as health systems and schools can help boost the overall vaccination rate in the community, she said. While some employees do protest, “most actually just get vaccinated,” she said.

While it’s hard to say exactly how such requirements affect school operations, she predicted that employee vaccination combined with other mitigation strategies “will provide greater stability.”

Some districts have found it difficult to get a handle on how many people in the school have been vaccinated. Newport Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said that under New Hampshire’s new law, employees can’t be required to tell the district whether or not they are vaccinated.

“I don’t have any idea how many students/staff are vaccinated,” Minnihan said. “We just don’t have a formal way to know definitively who is vaccinated.”

Other districts seem to have a clearer sense. At Hanover and Norwich schools, 97% of employees have been vaccinated without mandates in place, SAU 70 Superintendent Jay Badams said.

In the COVID-19 agreement the Lebanon School Board approved last week with the teachers and support staff union, the district commits to providing masks, gloves and other protective gear to employees as necessary; continuing to maximize air quality; and to consulting employees when the district considers switching to a remote learning format or adjusting the school calendar. Employees also are allowed to request to meet with parents and others outside of the district remotely, online or by phone. The agreement does not mention vaccination.

Messages to Lebanon Superintendent Joanne Roberts seeking information about the percentage of Lebanon school employees who have been vaccinated were not returned by deadline Monday.

Private schools are not bound by New Hampshire’s law.

Crossroads Academy, a K-8 independent school in Lyme, “is focused on two primary missions: keeping our community of students, faculty, and staff healthy, and keeping students learning in person at school,” Head of School Dan Morrissey said.

Part of Crossroads’ “multi-layered mitigation strategy that works for our school” is to require that employees be vaccinated, with exemptions for religious or medical reasons, he said.

Cardigan Mountain School, a boarding and day school for boys in grades 6 – 9 in Canaan, requires the shots for faculty, staff and students, said Chris Adams, a spokesman.

“As a residential community that lives, eats, learns, and recreates together, this prioritizes the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff and provides the best chance to operate our academic program as normally as possible,” he said.

The mandate for students was at least partly motivated by the desire to compete in interscholastic athletics, Adams said. Vaccination was a requirement for participation in the Lakes Region league, to which Cardigan belongs.

Leaders of the Vermont districts that have instituted mandates appear to be happy with them.

“I think that’s made us a lot safer,” Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said of his district’s vaccine requirement during a School Board meeting last week.

At a previous meeting, DeBalsi said that just three employees refused to be vaccinated. The district employs about 440 people.

Hartford’s mandate also applies to employees providing services for which the district contracts with an outside agency, such as busing and food service. The district did lose a couple of bus drivers due to the mandate, he said.

The response to WSSU’s requirement was similar, according to Superintendent David Baker. Just one person in the Windsor-area supervisory union resigned due to the mandate, he said. Another 11 employees received a religious exemption and are tested regularly, he said. The other approximately 290 employees complied.

Baker said in an interview earlier this fall that there was “a little grumbling at first, but it worked.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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