Milwaukee Public Schools Office of School Administration, 5225 W. Vliet St. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Milwaukee Public Schools Office of School Administration, 5225 W. Vliet St. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Teachers and staff in Milwaukee Public Schools will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 effective Nov. 1, with those who are unable for medical or religious reasons being tested twice per week.

The MPS school board voted unanimously to approve the mandate on Thursday night. It also unanimously approved a $100 incentive for students ages 12 and older who could provide proof of vaccination, with more details on the plan to be hammered out in October meetings.

“We have so many students that are currently ineligible for vaccines, we have immunocompromised students and staff in our buildings — I always tell my kids that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re all worthy of love — everyone in our building is worthy of love and protection, regardless of health status,” said board member Megan O’Halloran. “I just think we need to do everything, layer every mitigation protocol that we can, in order to keep our students and staff in the building in a safe manner.”

The board also considered financial incentives for staff, but were advised by the city attorney’s office that passing both a mandate and financial incentives could open the district up to legal challenges. Board members decided to revisit the issue at a later meeting.

Employees who don’t submit proof of vaccination or an accommodation request by the Nov. 1 deadline will receive a notice that they’ll be put on administrative leave. If they don’t submit their documentation, the leave could be followed by discipline and termination, said Adria Maddaleni, MPS chief of human resources.

School officials estimated the vaccine mandate would cost $893,000 in implementation and compliance, including hiring people in nursing and human resources to oversee the rollout and verify vaccination records or exemption requests.

Staff said proof of an exemption would likely be a physician’s note outlining why someone is medically prevented from receiving the vaccine. The cash incentives for students would cost $3.12 million if every eligible student took advantage of them. The school administration noted that financial incentives are considered an allowed use of federal relief funds.

A few people testified against the vaccine mandate during the board meeting. Some said they personally supported vaccination, but believed the choice of whether to receive the shot should be up to individuals and that staff members shouldn’t be penalized for choosing not to. Others raised concerns about the vaccine itself, and some expressed skepticism about the risk posed by COVID-19.

Sarah Gruettner, an MPS nurse, said she supports vaccination, but thought MPS hadn’t thought through the consequences, like departures of unvaccinated staff.

“This mandate will put the district — a district already unable to recruit or retain staff — in a much worse position,” she said. “I know we are all ready for this pandemic to be over and for life to return to normal, and I believe the vaccine is a good step toward that. However, I don’t believe in mandating it.”

Several teachers and parents testified in favor of a vaccine mandate, saying it would help keep staff and kids safe.

Gregory Ludwig, parent of a kindergartner, said he supported a vaccine mandate and financial incentives for students, but not for staff.

“When considering whether or not to send (my daughter) to in-person school this year, my wife and I felt really uncertain,” he said. “We were very fearful that our daughter would contract the virus, and we ultimately determined that the school was taking all possible precautions with the exception of a vaccine mandate, which we felt sure would soon come to pass … I urge you to please take this one crucial step.”

Milwaukee Public Schools joins several health providers and companies around the state that are now requiring vaccination. The Biden administration also announced a forthcoming federal rule Thursday that would require businesses with 100 or more employees to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. The Madison Metropolitan School District, which was similarly cautious about returning in-person learning to MPS, will vote on a vaccine mandate later this month, with the support of its teachers’ union.

MPS was one of the last to reopen schools to in-person students last school year. Students in the state’s largest school district started returning to classrooms in large numbers in April, though some students with special needs could get in-person time before then.

All Wisconsin teachers and school staff became eligible for vaccination on March 1. Some districts worked with their local health providers to provide shots even sooner.

The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association voted to support a vaccine requirement Wednesday night, provided it had carve-outs for approved exemptions and protected the union members’ legal rights. MTEA’s resolution also called for financial incentives for vaccination.

MTEA President Amy Mizialko stressed that in order to keep COVID-19 out of the schools, community leaders need to stop the spread in the surrounding communities — and she criticized the Milwaukee Common Council for not instituting a new indoor mask requirement as COVID-19 and the delta variant have been spreading rapidly.

Milwaukee County’s share of fully vaccinated eligible people is at 49.8 percent, lagging behind the statewide rate of 52.1 percent. Neither the district nor the teachers’ union had information about how many MPS teachers and staff have already been vaccinated. As of Sept. 7, the county had a very high level of COVID-19 activity.

Although the coronavirus has been shown to cause less severe disease in children, the more transmissible delta variant of the virus spreads more easily among unvaccinated people. Children under age 12 aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine. Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, has been seeing an increase in hospitalizations of children with COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Wisconsin’s health and education agencies have recommended universal mask-wearing in schools, as well as social distancing and other preventive measures. MPS requires masks and implemented other safety protocols, but many other districts have not.

Listen to the WPR report here.

Milwaukee School Board Votes To Require Vaccines For Staff, Approves Incentives For Vaccinated Students was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

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