Decatur schools staff COVID vaccination deadline arrives

Decatur kindergarten teacher Laura Price Pitts got her first COVID-19 shot at a pharmacy in Tuskegee, Alabama in early 2021, before teachers had access to vaccines in Georgia. By fall, the school district had mandated vaccination for all staff. The deadline was Oct. 31. CONTRIBUTED

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Decatur kindergarten teacher Laura Price Pitts got her first COVID-19 shot at a pharmacy in Tuskegee, Alabama in early 2021, before teachers had access to vaccines in Georgia. By fall, the school district had mandated vaccination for all staff. The deadline was Oct. 31. CONTRIBUTED

The deadline for what may be the only COVID-19 vaccine mandate for school employees in Georgia elapsed this week in Decatur, with less than full compliance but no terminations.

Of the district’s 915 employees, 46 refused to get vaccinated but none was fired or quit over it, system officials said. Close to 90 other employees had not completed their vaccine notification form as of Tuesday.

Decatur Superintendent Maggie Fehrman may have established a precedent in September when she ordered all staff to be vaccinated by the end of October as a condition of employment. At the time, Fehrman also considered a mandate for students, but concluded that only the state could require that.

State education and health officials have said they hadn’t heard of any other such mandates in Georgia, and neither has Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. Her group has about 100 members in the Decatur schools, where Fehrman’s announcement in September of a staff mandate appeared to be uncontroversial. Morgan said the local GAE president told her she’d heard of no complaints about Decatur’s mandate.

“Everyone in her building that she knew of was vaccinated,” Morgan said.

The Clarke County school board in Athens considered a similar proposal last month, but voted against submitting the policy for public comment, The Athens Banner-Herald reported.

Decatur schools spokeswoman Courtney Burnett said about three quarters of the employees who did not meet the Oct. 31 deadline for vaccination obtained medical or religious exemptions. The rest were given what she called “personal” exemptions.

“We always said that if you were not vaccinating for medical, religious or personal reasons you would be subject to additional protocols. We are working with these 10 employees on the additional protocols this week,” she said in a written response to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the personal exemptions. (Medical and religious exemptions are a standard opt-out for vaccine mandates.)

Unvaccinated staff must participate in a weekly testing program and are asked to double mask, she said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Burnett could not say how many of the unvaccinated employees were teachers or other staff who come into contact with students. She said the district was still sorting the data on that.

Of the 776 fully vaccinated employees, 72% are certified staff and building administrators and 28% are classified as support staff.

As with the rest of Georgia, infection counts have plummeted, falling precipitously in the Decatur schools after mid-September, when the system shut down for fall break. Even during the peak of the fall outbreak, the system’s numbers were relatively low, typically hovering around a dozen cases per week, with a couple of spikes above that. The district has about 5,600 students.

The city is near the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is home to many agency employees. Last month, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who until last spring was director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, was named as a volunteer expert on the school system’s health advisory team.

Vaccination rates have been relatively high in the area. Last May, a local pediatrician held a rare mass vaccination event for local teenagers after vaccination was authorized for 12-to15-year-olds. Dr. Jane Wilkov said she will again team with the school system to offer another such clinic Thursday afternoon if the CDC, as expected, authorizes the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 5-11.

Wilkov said in a text message Tuesday that she was busy scheduling 1,200 patients for shots and that the list was growing. She had at least as many older kids scheduled for her clinic’s spring event.