Most D.C.-Area Schools Are Requiring Vaccines For Teachers. Why Isn't Fairfax County? The largest school system in the D.C. region has not announced a vaccine requirement for teachers, with less than a week until school begins.
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Most D.C.-Area Schools Are Requiring Vaccines For Teachers. Why Isn't Fairfax County?

Students in Fairfax County return to in-person learning next week. The district is one of the few local school systems that is not requiring teachers to be vaccinated — yet. Marco Verch/Flickr hide caption

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Marco Verch/Flickr

Public school officials in Fairfax County, Virginia, have adopted a litany of COVID-19 health and safety measures to protect children returning to classrooms this month, including a universal mask requirement, social distancing at lunch, and a virtual learning plan in case schools are forced to shut down again.

But there's one policy Fairfax schools haven't adopted yet: a vaccine mandate for teachers.

Public schools in Montgomery County, Prince George's County, D.C., and Arlington County have already implemented vaccine requirements for educators and other school staff this fall. Alexandria is expected to announce a vaccine policy this week. As the region's largest public school system, Fairfax County is a notable holdout.

A spokesperson for Fairfax County Public Schools says the school district is collaborating with county leaders on the matter. "Discussions are ongoing and we are looking to make final decisions [on a vaccine requirement] next week," the spokesperson wrote in an email to DCist/WAMU.

The first day of school in Fairfax County is next week, Aug. 23. Any school staff who aren't vaccinated yet would run out of time to be fully vaccinated before classrooms reopen.

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Other school systems have adopted vaccine requirements for educators following research showing that the unvaccinated are more likely than inoculated individuals to spread COVID-19. Children under the age of 12 don't have approved access to vaccines yet, making them particularly vulnerable to the virus' highly contagious delta variant.

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers — a labor union that represents educators, counselors, and other public school staff in the county — said in a statement that it supports a vaccine requirement for school employees. It also favors requiring weekly COVID-19 testing for staff who cannot prove they're vaccinated.

"Feedback from our members shows that there is strong support for a vaccine mandate among our membership," the union wrote.

As of now, the school system does not know how many of its teachers are vaccinated, and it has not asked teachers to submit proof of inoculation. FCPS is relying on data that show around 90% of teachers in the district registered for vaccinations at clinics the school system held earlier this year.

"We don't hold specific data on the actual number [of vaccinated teachers] but we would estimate it was higher than 90%," an FCPS spokesperson tells DCist/WAMU.

Vaccination numbers in Fairfax County are also relatively high. More than 77% of adults have received at least one dose of vaccine, and more than 70% are fully vaccinated.

"We're doing really well," said Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, a medical epidemiologist with the Fairfax County Health Department, during a back-to-school town hall Monday evening.

The data have been reassuring to Karl Frisch, who represents the Providence District on the Fairfax County School Board. "Even if the number is south of 90%, we're talking about a very large proportion of our staff who are vaccinated," he says.

But Frisch says he would still like FCPS to try to close the gap by requiring all staff to show proof of vaccination or agree to regular COVID-19 testing. "I've communicated in writing to the superintendent that this is something I'd like to see happen," he says.

Some Fairfax County school staff believe a vaccine mandate is already in place, even though one has not been implemented. Emmanuel Otchere, a 51-year-old janitor in the school system, received his second shot at a vaccine clinic at Justice High School two weeks ago.

"It has become something that everybody should do, especially where you work. If you don't do it, they're going to terminate your appointment," Otchere told DCist/WAMU. "It's something the government wants everybody to do, so you have to obey the law."

County government staff in Fairfax are not required to be vaccinated or agree to regular COVID-19 testing before they return to work, though the Board of Supervisors recently called on County Executive Bryan Hill to "thoroughly explore" a requirement. Hill has not announced a mandate, and he did not return emails from WAMU/DCist seeking comment.

Community spread of COVID-19 is currently "substantial" in Fairfax County, with about 83 cases per 100,000 residents as of Aug. 16, according to the CDC. New COVID-19 hospital admissions are also rising, though fewer than 4 percent of ICU beds in the county are currently occupied by COVID patients.

A representative from the Fairfax County Parents Association, which calls itself a nonpartisan volunteer group of parents, says it has not taken a position on vaccine mandates for teachers. Christy Hudson, who answered an email from DCist/WAMU on behalf of the group, cast doubt on the idea that a mandate would make a real difference.

"A vaccine mandate for teachers in FCPS is unlikely to have any substantive effect on case trajectory or transmission within the county," Hudson wrote.

The risk of transmission may be greater in jurisdictions to the west and south of Fairfax County, where vaccination rates are lower and viral spread is higher. Nearby Prince William County is currently experiencing a high rate of transmission, with 115 cases per 100,000 residents and 11% of ICU beds occupied by COVID patients, per the CDC.

Prince William has not adopted a vaccine mandate for county workers or educators, though students and staff will be required to wear masks once school begins there next week.

Margaret Barthel contributed reporting to this story.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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