The Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Board has given its staff a choice: either get vaccinated or face weekly testing for COVID-19.
The supervisory union’s unanimous decision Wednesday night will likely set precedent for the schools in the towns of Rockingham, Westminster, Grafton and Athens, although the individual School Boards have to independently ratify it. The supervisory union’s action directly affects the main office, transportation, food service and aide.
The Rockingham School Board already has adopted a similar policy, only the deadlines are different. The supervisory union set the deadline at Oct. 4.
Five of six schools in the supervisory union have positive cases: three positive cases forced Grafton Elementary to switch to remote learning; Westminster Center School has three positive cases; Central Elementary in Bellows Falls has four positive cases; and Bellows Falls Middle School has three positive cases with multiple students quarantined, said interim Superintendent Andy Haas. Bellows Falls Union High School has one case. Only Saxtons River Elementary School reported no cases, he said.
In addition to vaccination or testing, all staff and students are required to wear masks while indoors until Oct. 4, although Haas asked the board to extend that until the end of October.
During Wednesday’s discussion, the supervisory union decided not to adopt a more elaborate policy suggested by Haas, which would have required lengthy negotiation with the Windham Northeast Education Association union, which represents the teachers and staff.
But instead, it unanimously adopted a motion that simply laid out the requirement.
School directors were worried that Haas’ suggested policy would delay the actual vaccination and needlessly complicate matters.
Haas had briefed the school directors that vaccination rates of staff at all the schools, but Bellows Falls Middle School were in the middle 90s percentage-wise. At the middle school, the rate is 66 percent he said for staff, and only 25 percent of eligible students.
Director Jason Terry of Rockingham asked if the staff had been asked why they weren’t getting vaccinated, and was told that the school nurses were doing follow-up.
Contact tracing has been a scramble, he said, with the nurses working very hard to discover the extent of the exposure — and how many people should be quarantined.
Parts of Haas’ suggested memorandum of agreement, which was ultimately rejected, would have given teachers paid time off when they were required to quarantine because of exposure. The policy would have also given teachers and staff time off to get vaccinated, and an additional day to recover from any side effects from the vaccine. Employees would not have had to use their regular sick time under the proposal.
Haas said funding for the additional coverage could come from the supervisory union’s federal COVID-19 funding.
Director Jack Bryar objected, and said unless the teachers are sick, they could teach remotely. He said other school districts and a large employer such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, follow such a policy.
Haas said he was concerned that teachers, over the course of the year, could be forced to quarantine several times — through no fault of their own — because of exposure to unvaccinated students.
Currently, only students 12 and older are eligible for vaccines.
Haas said the happiness and excitement about the return to school was unfortunately short-lived, as the COVID-19 cases started popping up immediately. Testing is being offered at all the schools on Thursdays, Haas said.