The four public school districts serving northern Johnson County all say the majority of their staffs are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but exact figures are not known.
When asked by the Shawnee Mission Post what their staffs’ vaccination rates are a few weeks into the new school year, officials in Blue Valley, Olathe, Shawnee Mission and USD 232 in De Soto all gave estimates based on data collected at vaccine clinics this past spring.
With no clear means for tracking exact COVID-19 vaccination rates among their educators, districts are relying on data collected months ago at public vaccination clinics they held in partnership with the Johnson County health department.
The four districts all estimate at least 70% — and in De Soto’s case, more than 80% — of their staffs were vaccinated at that time.
But not knowing who exactly is vaccinated could have consequences.
The CDC recently highlighted the example of an unvaccinated California teacher who took off her mask in class in May in order to read aloud to her students, and 12 of them ended up infected.
Johnson County pediatrician Natasha Burgert, who has been an outspoken advocate for COVID-19 mitigation protocols in schools, said she thinks it’s important for anyone caring for children — not just teachers — to ensure they are doing all they can to protect themselves and children against COVID-19.
“I would think school administrators would want their teachers and staff vaccinated, specifically because of the staffing shortages all districts are dealing with right now,” Burgert said.
Burgert said she’s also concerned for teachers, who remain at risk of contracting COVID-19 with the Delta variant in high circulation in the Kansas City metro. COVID-19 school outbreaks could cause an additional strain on staff shortages, she said.
“We need teachers in school. In order to stop the spread, adults over the age of 12 need to be vaccinated,” Burgert said.
District vaccination rates that we know
The concrete numbers these Johnson County public school districts do have come from vaccination clinics hosted in the spring.
The clinics were conducted in conjunction with the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment and were held at district facilities in many cases.
Below is a look at each district’s specific numbers:
- Shawnee Mission estimates about 72% of its certified staff, approximately 2,200 out of 3,600, are vaccinated, per March 2021 clinics.
- USD 232 said it told its 1,150 staff members about the spring vaccination clinic, and about 84% of those staffers participated and are fully vaccinated. Alvie Carter, USD 232 spokesperson, said the district’s total number of vaccinated staff could be higher, as some may have received vaccines outside of the school clinics.
- Blue Valley told the Post it estimates at least 75% of staff were vaccinated at spring clinics.
- Olathe estimates that approximately 78-80% of staff is vaccinated, per the spring JCDHE clinics. A district representative told the Post that, in line with the other districts, it is not tracking vaccinations that staff members receive moving forward.
Whether or not local districts are able to track teacher vaccination rates, Burgert said following New York City’s move to mandate teacher vaccinations — more vaccine mandates for educators could be on the way.
“I think we’re going to hear more about school districts mandating the vaccines for their school staff as we press forward,” Burgert said.
District officials admit that estimates based on the spring clinics are likely out-of-date at this point.
The spring numbers don’t include teachers hired between then and the beginning of the current school year and also don’t account for any staff who may have gotten vaccinated outside a school-based clinic.
SMSD, for instance, says since the spring the district has hired more than 250 staff members — and also says there are no vaccination estimates for non-certified staff.
David Smith, Shawnee Mission’s chief communications officer, said the district is not requiring teachers to disclose if they are vaccinated.
“We’re left with incomplete information, and part of the reason we have to make some of the decisions we make is exactly that: we don’t have complete information,” Smith said.
Whether schools can require teachers and staff members to disclose their COVID-19 vaccination status is a legal gray area.
Two lawyers interviewed by the publication Education Week said asking school staffers their COVID-19 vaccination status could potentially run afoul of federal protections for workers with disabilities and said, for now, districts appear to be mostly opting to steer clear of the issue.
But both lawyers agreed that districts sharing aggregated data of staff vaccine rates was permissible.
The Kansas Department of Education deferred questions about districts’ ability to ask about teachers’ vaccination status to the state attorney general’s office, which did not immediately respond to a requests for comment for this story.
Linda Sieck, president of National Education Association — Shawnee Mission, said she believes by not asking teachers’ their vaccination status, SMSD “is respecting teachers’ health privacy.”
Blue Valley Post reporter Nikki Lansford contributed to this report.