Clark County School District's plan for employee vaccine mandate remains hazy

More than a month ago, the Clark County School Board of Trustees gave district leadership clearance to move forward with an employee vaccine mandate and start negotiating with the bargaining groups.

But a notable silence has followed the fiery meeting, which drew five hours of public testimony in early September. As the Clark County School District continues to negotiate successor contracts with its employee bargaining groups, it appears the vaccine mandate discussions have been put on the back burner. 

The Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees (CCASAPE) sent the district a letter Sept. 20 outlining its position on the mandate, but, as of Wednesday, had not received a response or started negotiating the matter, the union’s executive director, Stephen Augspurger, said. 

Likewise, John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), said Wednesday that the teachers’ union was “prepared to sit down and bargain” on the vaccine mandate but has not had discussions with the district yet. 

A spokesperson for the Education Support Employees Association (ESEA) said the district had put the vaccine mandate negotiations on hold until after the contract is settled. The Police Officers Association of the Clark County School District did not respond to an inquiry from The Nevada Independent.

A statement issued by school district officials Wednesday evening did not shed much light on the plan itself or a timeline.

“On September 1, 2021, the Clark County School District (CCSD) Board of School Trustees authorized the superintendent to develop a plan for vaccinating employees,” district officials wrote. “Each of the five bargaining units representing District employees are being consulted in the development of the vaccination plan and the plan will be made available to the public once it is finalized.”

Clark County School Board President Linda Cavazos said trustees have not received significant updates about where staff is at in the process.

“We have asked for some updates as soon as possible,” Cavazos said last week, noting that she receives a few emails each day from parents and educators on both sides of the issue who want more information.

The waiting period, however, hasn’t necessarily worried the unions.

“I’m OK with it going slowly to make sure whatever we do is done properly,” Augspurger said.

CCASAPE’s letter suggests the school district could increase the employee vaccination rate by launching an information campaign and deploying mobile vaccination units to schools, central office locations and after-school activities and sporting events. The union also asked the district to “delay implementation of any mandatory practices” while heeding those recommendations in a bid to voluntarily increase vaccine compliance.

The COVID-19 vaccination rate among employee groups, as of mid-September, ranged from 39 percent for school police to 81 percent for administrators. As of that time period, nearly 73 percent of licensed educators, 62 percent of police administrators and 56 percent of support professionals were also fully vaccinated, according to district data, which The Nevada Current was first to report

Leaders from both the teachers’ and school administrators’ unions have not outright opposed a vaccine mandate, though they have expressed concern about how it might exacerbate an already-thin workforce. The district’s website on Wednesday showed 728 job openings for licensed educators, among other vacant positions.

“We really don’t want this policy to become an issue where it’s a career-ending decision for folks,” Vellardita said. “We want to try to, as much as possible, find work-around solutions to comply with the policy but at the same time address some of the issues some educators may have.”

The resolution passed by the school board in September — allowing the district to create a vaccine mandate policy — noted that any plan would include a process for exemption requests, “which may be based on certain documented medical circumstances or sincerely held religious beliefs.”

CCASAPE’s letter to the school district argues that medical and religious exemptions must be available “with a clearly stated application and approval process,” but the administrators’ union put forth another idea as well — allowing employees who have recovered from COVID-19 to be tested for antibodies as the basis for an additional vaccine exemption.

Though Augspurger said he encourages union members to get the vaccine, he thinks any forthcoming policy should have clear carve-outs for people who cannot or should not receive the shot. The union also wants the vaccine mandate to adhere to progressive discipline procedures outlined in its collective bargaining agreement — in other words, employees without an approved exemption should face corrective disciplinary action rather than automatic termination.

“If the district implements a mandatory vaccination (policy), it’s not like we are going to file a lawsuit on that, but we insist they follow progressive discipline that’s in our contract,” Augspurger said.

As Clark County School District staff mull the possible effects of a policy, several other large, urban districts have already paved the way. In late August, New York City announced that all Department of Education employees needed to receive their first dose of the vaccine by Sept. 27. Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that 95 percent of full-time school employees had met that requirement, and roughly 8,000 workers who refused the vaccine were put on unpaid leave.

Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, said vaccine mandates pose a “delicate balance” for school districts trying to weigh health and safety with labor concerns. She suspects the mandates’ workforce ramifications will vary geographically — districts in regions with already-high vaccination rates may be less vulnerable to a sudden flurry of staff departures.

Similarly, Roza said districts may discover that certain segments of their labor force oppose a vaccine mandate more than others, creating operational challenges if a district lost a large number of, say, custodians or school nurses.

But it’s generally difficult to tell how a mandate will fare, she said, because the announcements tend to provide little specificity — sometimes prompting more questions than answers.

“There are so many different add-on features that happen after they make some big announcement,” Roza said. “The devil’s in the details, I guess.”

As bargaining groups await discussions with the Clark County School District, at least one is already curious about whether a mandate also will be required for students down the line. Vellardita said CCEA intends to ask that question during its negotiations. (California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced a vaccine mandate for schoolchildren, though it won’t be effective until the Food and Drug Administration grants full vaccine approval for those age groups and, even then, parents can cite personal beliefs as an exemption.)

“We want that discussion to come out sooner rather than later,” Vellardita said. “I just don’t know what the appetite is of that school board or the superintendent.”

The Washoe County School District, meanwhile, has not even edged toward an employee vaccination mandate. 

“The Washoe County School District continues to follow state and local guidance regarding vaccines and COVID-related practices,” district officials said in a statement. “There are no current plans to mandate vaccines among our more than 8,000 staff members.”