The Shawnee Mission School District for the time being will not require teachers and staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The school board broached the topic Monday night for the first time, nearly three weeks after President Joe Biden issued a federal vaccine requirement for workplaces with more than 100 employees.
On Monday, Superintendent Michelle Hubbard noted that Biden’s executive order does not apply to school districts. Since schools are generally controlled at the local level, the federal government has less power to impose such requirements.
Still, other major public school districts, including Kansas City, Mo., Public Schools and St. Louis Public Schools, have forged ahead with their own vaccine mandates at the start of this school year, prompting the discussion in SMSD.
Rev. Laura Guy, SM West area board member, said Monday she was grateful for the conversation, noting that she believes SMSD is one of the first districts in Kansas to publicly talk about teacher and staff vaccinations.
“We want to do everything we possibly can to keep our students and our staff safe, that’s what we talked about with masking requirements this year,” Guy said. “We want students in the buildings, we want them safe, we want our staff protected, too, and that’s why it’s worth having this conversation.”
Current staff vaccination data
On Monday, Michael Schumacher, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources, gave an update on vaccination data for district staff.
He said SMSD’s numbers come from district-sponsored vaccination clinics held this past spring, resulting in the following numbers:
- About 81% of all Shawnee Mission employees are vaccinated, including certified staff like teachers
- The vaccination rate of food service employees stands at 72%
- 55% of paras are vaccinated, while 58% of custodians and 52% of operations and maintenance workers are vaccinated
Schumacher admitted data for contract workers is likely incomplete because those individuals were not vaccinated at district clinics. With that in mind, he estimated about 25% of substitute teachers and only 12% of bus drivers are vaccinated.
In addition, since school resource officers received vaccines through the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Hubbard said the district also doesn’t have good vaccination data for SROs.
‘Not the right time’
If the district were to formally consider a vaccination mandate for teachers and staff, the school board would likely need to decide whether or not to include an opt-out clause, district officials said, like allowing employees to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing instead of getting vaccinated.
In that case, SMSD would need to discuss funding and logistics for weekly testing, Board President Heather Ousley said.
Kansas City, Mo., Public Schools also include religious and medical exemptions to its vaccine mandate, board members noted.
A vaccine requirement also potentially create new challenges that the board discussed Monday.
Not only would the district need to figure out a way to pay for vaccines, it could also potentially face losing staff who don’t want to get vaccinated, at a time the district is already experiencing a staffing shortage.
Hubbard said the district is already short about 250 classified staff members due to COVID-19 and warned a vaccine requirement would exacerbate the issue.
Schumacher echoed Hubbard’s staffing concerns, and agreed that the district could lose staff if a vaccine requirement is implemented.
Jamie Borgman, SM Northwest area board member, said she hears from teachers on a weekly basis who are exhausted from the impacts of staff shortages.
Borgman said the district can’t afford to lose anymore, and as a result, can’t push the vaccination issue.
“This is not the right time for this,” Borgman said. “In the best interest of all of our students … this, right now, is not for the overall health of our district.”
Other staffing discussions
Also on Monday, Ousley asked the administration to look into the costs of increasing para pay to be competitive with nearby districts like Olathe and Kansas City, Kan. Public Schools.
Increasing the base pay alone from $13.27 an hour to $15 an hour would cost the district more than $375,000 annually, Schumacher said.
It would cost the district “considerably more than $375,000” to increase the entire salary schedule and accommodate employees currently making $15 an hour and have been with the district for years.
Administration will look into specifics, but to increase all classified staff salary schedules could cost upwards of $1 million.
Jessica Hembree, the SM South area board member, said while she acknowledges the staffing issues the district is currently facing, the overall health of students is the real issue at hand.
Time and time again, health experts told the board that widespread vaccinations are one of the best mitigation efforts to protect kids from COVID-19, Hembree said. Additionally, Hembree said vaccinations are “off-ramps” for masks.
“I know no one up here wants to have this mask fight every August,” Hembree said. “What we need to do to get to that spot is just having more vaccination in our community and lower prevalence of COVID.”
Hembree’s comments were met with heckling from a crowd member.
The board agreed to put a pause on the vaccine requirement discussion.
District administrators will continue to collect information about vaccine requirements, and may decide in the future to bring forward a proposal to implement a requirement in Shawnee Mission.