City Schools of Decatur mandates COVID vaccines for staff

City Schools of Decatur Superintendent Dr. Maggie Fehrman talks about requiring staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 during a board meeting Tuesday evening, Sept. 14, 2021.( Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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City Schools of Decatur Superintendent Dr. Maggie Fehrman talks about requiring staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 during a board meeting Tuesday evening, Sept. 14, 2021.( Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Student mandate still under review

The public schools in Decatur will mandate vaccination against COVID-19 as a condition of employment, giving teachers and staff until the end of October to get their shots or to secure an exemption.

Decatur Superintendent Maggie Fehrman said last month that she was considering vaccine mandates for both staff and students, but on Tuesday she told her school board that a mandate for children was still being debated internally.

“For students, this is a much bigger issue,” she said.

Fehrman last month said the school system was drafting a policy that would require vaccination for its nearly 1,000 employees. She doesn’t need school board approval for that mandate but would need the board’s approval for a student mandate.

Fehrman said last month, as far as she knows, Decatur would be the first district in the state to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine. The Georgia Department of Education is unaware of any other district with such a mandate.

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City Schools of Decatur staff have until the end of October to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Superintendent Dr. Maggie Fehrman told school board members Tuesday evening, Sept. 14, 2021. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

City Schools of Decatur staff have until the end of October to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Superintendent Dr. Maggie Fehrman told school board members Tuesday evening, Sept. 14, 2021. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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City Schools of Decatur staff have until the end of October to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Superintendent Dr. Maggie Fehrman told school board members Tuesday evening, Sept. 14, 2021. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Some businesses are beginning to mandate vaccinations but the idea is controversial for adults, let alone children. Gov. Brian Kemp has threatened to go to court to block President Joe Biden’s new federal vaccine requirements for employers. His office on Wednesday said this about Decatur’s action: “This clearly violates my executive order banning vaccine mandates by public entities.”

The FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine last month. Children as young as 12 have had access to it for months, and health officials expect younger children to be eligible in a matter of months.

For nearly a year, the Pfizer vaccine had been given only with an emergency use authorization. No one was seriously considering a mandate in that scenario, but full approval opened the door.

ExploreGeorgia public health officials: Most COVID-19 outbreaks now in schools

A Decatur student mandate would follow Los Angeles, which became the first major district in the country last week to require vaccines for students 12 and older.

Decatur residents may be more likely than most to accept a mandate. The school district of about 5,800 students is within a few miles of the of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters, with many employees living in the city. Decatur is also home to doctors and professors who work at Emory and other colleges and universities.

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Kadence Booker,13, gets a COVID-19 vaccination at a mobile clinic at Decatur High School on Monday afternoon, July 19, 2021. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Kadence Booker,13, gets a COVID-19 vaccination at a mobile clinic at Decatur High School on Monday afternoon, July 19, 2021. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Kadence Booker,13, gets a COVID-19 vaccination at a mobile clinic at Decatur High School on Monday afternoon, July 19, 2021. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

A local pediatricians’ office was swamped in May during its first vaccination event for local teens. The DeKalb Pediatric Center partnered with Decatur schools to vaccinate children aged 12 to 15 soon after they became eligible, and parents of more than 1,000 eligible children signed up.

Child vaccination rates remain low in the state though. About 1 in 4 Georgia children aged 12 to 17 have gotten shots, a small increase over the roughly 1 in 5 at the start of the school year.

Many parents remain reluctant to get their children vaccinated against COVID despite assurances from public health officials that it is both safe and crucial for controlling the spread of the virus. The ethics of child mandates are complicated by the fact that children are less likely to suffer severe symptoms from infection.

Not all Decatur parents are supportive of a possible mandate. It would override parents’ authority, Anna Hinson, a mother of two local students, told the Decatur school board Tuesday, and it would send the wrong message to students who are being taught to think for themselves, she said.

ExploreCOVID-19 cases in metro Atlanta schools: Sept. 14, 2021

“With a mandate you would be telling the kids you teach that no matter how curious, self-directed, self-aware and autonomous they are in their growth process there will always be an authoritative power that is ready to squash the direction of their growth and independence if it does not conform,” she said.

One other public speaker, calling in remotely, agreed. Another encouraged the board to adopt a student mandate.

Fehrman gave no timeframe for the development of a student mandate. She said staffers who obtain an exemption from vaccination would have to take a daily rapid test for COVID at work, a pharmacy or other institution. Home tests will not be accepted.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article