In the past few weeks, school districts across the country have approved mandates requiring teachers and other staff to be fully vaccinated in order to continue working in schools. These decisions have faced opposition as some staff believe that requirement of vaccination is a violation of personal beliefs, privacy, and civil liberties.
The Santa Barbara Unified School Board’s unanimous decision to require vaccination of its staff was made on September 23rd, following in the footsteps of many other school districts across the country. The decision was based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research that shows that although vaccinated people can still contract and spread COVID-19, they are less likely to than those who are unvaccinated. A surge in cases seen in our county at that time due to the spread of the Delta variant, along with the fact that young children were not yet able to be vaccinated, were also contributing factors to the decision.
“This single most effective way to ensure safety and avoid hospitalization and death is to get vaccinated,” said SBUSD School Board members, Kate Ford and Laura Capps, in an op-ed to the Independent. “With the daunting reality of the rapid spread of the Delta variant in mind, we have now concluded that it is absolutely essential to require COVID-19 vaccinations for ALL school staff who are eligible.”
November 1st marked the deadline for SBUSD staff to receive their second vaccination shot. As of that date, 96% of the 1,700 regular SBUSD employees have been vaccinated, while the other 4% have refused to receive their vaccination or show proof of vaccination. Seventy staff members have applied for religious exemption, and 7 have applied for medical exemption. Eight SBUSD staff members who did not apply for exemption have since gone on unpaid leave of absence due to refusal to show proof of vaccination, and at least three of them were teachers who have been replaced by substitutes.
Employees of the district who oppose the mandate have come together to form a group called Unify SB, which has appointed attorney Tony Black to represent unvaccinated staff, teachers, and coaches in these cases.
“Unify SB, comprised of passionate and dedicated certificated/classified staff of Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD), is representing teachers, coaches, and staff who have been given an ultimatum,” Black said in a statement. “Specifically, SBUSD has given them two choices: (1) take the COVID-19 vaccine against their wishes thereby waiving their constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion and civil rights under employment law; or (2) face unpaid leave and eventual future termination. However, Unify SB, and the employees it represents have chosen a third option: to fight for their rights in the court of law.”
Multiple staff here at San Marcos are among those who oppose the mandate.
“My objection to the vaccine mandate is based on a sincerely held religious belief and I have invoked my right to exemption in accordance with the District’s policy. State and federal law is clear: employers are required to allow for accommodations to the COVID shot when an employee has a sincerely held religious objection,” said a San Marcos teacher who chose to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. “If a vaccinated person can spread COVID just like the unvaccinated – as the CDC says – there is no reason why a reasonable accommodation such as the current testing program should be denied.”
Other staff members on campus agree with this statement, and believe that their decision to remain unvaccinated or not show proof of vaccination should be respected by the district.
“Not everyone fits into the box that the board expects and uniqueness should be celebrated,” another anonymous San Marcos teacher said in a public comment to the school board. “As genders, races, and ethnicities are honored and respected, we expect our right to our vaccination choice to be honored and respected, not to be put on unpaid leave.”
On November 9th, the district sent out an update email outlining changes made to their policy for employees granted religious or medical exemption. Previously, the policy was that those exempt from vaccination would go on unpaid leave as of December 17th, and then their pay status would be re-evaluated in March of 2022. With the update, those granted religious or medical exemption will be able to continue working in schools with the requirement that they submit COVID testing twice a week, wear an N-95 mask, and continue to practice social distancing. These changes were made following new federal guidelines on accommodations and exemptions, the approval of the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-12 which significantly reduces the risk of elementary students, a rising vaccination rate for staff within the district, and declining COVID-19 case numbers in our county.
“On the eve of UnifySB filing their complaint and after filing for a right to sue under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), SBUSD mailed out an amended accommodation offer—this time, it was more reasonable,” the Unify SB attorney said in a recent press release.
“This is a huge win for the employees of SBUSD but more importantly for the Constitution and Civil Rights of UnifySB members,” said Unify SB attorney Tony Black. “Although we’re in a pandemic, we must not forget to act while respecting individual liberties. Upholding the rule of law, even when it’s scary and hard to do so, is what makes America special.”
However, there are still students and staff who are concerned about the district’s recent accommodations, particularly students who have unvaccinated teachers.
“Upon hearing that one of my teachers was unvaccinated, I was worried. As I am high risk and have many underlying health conditions, I quickly felt unsafe,” said an anonymous San Marcos student. “My teacher, who is not always a large enough distance from me while teaching, could potentially end up infecting me and others around me. In all honesty, I really like them as a teacher, but I would much rather have them stay if I didn’t have to worry about my health.”
“With the compromise the district made to keep teachers who applied for exemption, how will my safety be impacted?” asked another anonymous San Marcos student. “The truth is, the teachers who I have, who are a part of this group, sometimes forget to wear their masks inside. Sometimes they don’t enforce it on their students either. If these teachers cannot be responsible and follow the rules and tell their students to put their masks on inside, how can we be sure that they will keep their N-95 masks on and social distance? I do not feel safe being around unvaccinated individuals, for my family’s sake and the ones I am around.”
With varying opinions on the school board’s initial decision and the recent update, many questions remain unanswered. How many teachers and staff will be forced to leave because of the vaccination requirement, and how many will be granted exemption and be able to stay? Will there be a substitute shortage as more staff members go on leave? And how will the new requirements for unvaccinated staff on campus be actively enforced? Only time will tell how the district’s recent decisions will play out, but whatever the ultimate outcome, it will have a profound impact on teachers, students, and staff across the district.