by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – On Monday, August 30, the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) board voted to “delegate authority for COVID-19 mitigation measures” to Superintendent Adam Rosenberg, with an expectation that Rosenberg work closely with the teachers’ union, National Education Association (NEA) affiliate Orleans Southwest Education Association (OSWEA).
Originally, the board debated whether to “cede” authority. Board member Steven Freihofner felt that the distinction was important because delegation was a “provisional decision” that could be changed in the future, whereas ceding authority would be more permanent. Much of the discussion centered around whether to mandate staff and teacher vaccination. Masking was less controversial as just two of the six OSSU schools have students old enough to be vaccinated.
In practice, what the board has asked Rosenberg to do is no different than his office has so far. There was an acknowledgment from several members that with the far more contagious Delta variant dominant, the ground has shifted drastically from last fall when the original Alpha variant was the only one around. Rosenberg shared that there was a positive test result already during the in-service week for teacher preparation before schools opened, but no transmission resulted.
Some members expressed frustration that the Vermont Department of Health (VDH) had provided just a page-and-a-half of “recommendations” to the schools, leaving the boards to decide on their own. Rosenberg said the OSSU policy thus far more closely followed the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations, which is a “layered approach.”
Board member Kasey Allen questioned why the OSSU was not simply following the VDH requirements, and Rosenberg replied, “to keep as many people safe as we can.”
He said that whereas last year the state had pages upon pages of requirements for schools, this new “layered approach” meant a series of measures designed to thwart COVID from entering the schools. Those would include things such as distancing guidelines that OSSU is trying to enforce, especially among students too young to get vaccinated, masking, and improving ventilation. The only layer that has proved divisive is vaccination.
The board discussed mandating vaccines among staff. Union president and teacher Corey Maskell said he had conducted a survey of its members and was “surprised” to learn “there isn’t really a consensus” as to whether teachers would accept a vaccination mandate.
“A lot of members see a potential vaccine mandate as a change of working conditions. The board making decisions about what they would see as a personal health care choice,” he said, meaning that it would potentially go against contracts already signed.
Board member Gordon Young said one option to consider was to allow teachers to re-negotiate contracts if they had an issue with a vaccine mandate. “I want to put out there that I’m sympathetic to the concerns of the teachers’ union, [but] we need to do something moving forward to make sure that our community is safe.”
A complication with any vaccine mandate is that thus far the OSSU can ask what staff members’ vaccination status is, but not verify the answers. It’s on the honor system. It was noted that the OSSU does not know concretely how many of its teachers and staff are vaccinated. Unlike students, who have vaccination requirements for things other than COVID to attend school, as far as anyone knew, there was no similar requirement in place for teachers and staff.
Several members pointed out that the schools are already thin on staffing, and vaccination might prevent serious issues with teachers needing to be absent to quarantine.
Young said that he was undecided about whether a vaccine mandate should be in place, but was very aware that in some circles it is controversial. He said that “it’s important that we talk about it, and that we’re aligned and stacked behind our administration so Adam [Rosenberg] is not out there hung out to try by himself for taking a controversial stand in the community. The number one thing is safety: safety for our kids, safety for our teachers and staff, the people that are dedicating so much of their time and effort to do the work that this community needs for them to do. I strongly support doing things from a safety-first perspective.”
Freihofner noted the politicization of vaccines and said that by giving the board so little to work with the state had effectively taken the target off its own back and shifted it to the local level. He said that he felt that the state had provided a “floor” of what to do about COVID safety rather than “shooting the requirements higher and causing a lot of controversy at the state level.” He also said asking why the OSSU was following CDC and AAP standards as opposed to the VDH “injects” an unnecessary discussion about loyalty.
One board member talked about “the worst case scenario: that we have the death of a student or teacher, and we’re going to hear from the community about, ‘why didn’t we force everyone to be vaccinated?'”
As for a vaccine mandate, chair Amy Rosenthal said, “I just don’t think we’re there yet.”
Board members were divided over how much more aggressive a stance the board should take. Ryan Bjerke discussed masking outdoors and proposed a more aggressive stance at the outset that could be backed down from if the situation improved.
“All the counties that our kids come from have high or [substantial] transmission. Taking extra steps now, early on, may prevent further problems down the road. You can always walk it back afterward if things improve.”
Freihofner said that he supported delegating the authority for determining COVID safety protocols to Rosenberg and the OSWEA.
“They’re in the trenches every day, they see what works and what doesn’t, they’re the people we should rely on to make the decision. And of course, we can disagree. Delegation doesn’t mean ceding. It’s provisional decision.”
Board member Vince Razionale moved to “delegate planning and delegate authority for COVID-19 mitigation measures, including masking, to the superintendent,” seconded by Sam Friend. Only Kasey Allen voted against the motion.