School Board greenlights road to CCSD employee vaccine mandate

Details to be determined by district and labor unions

By: - September 2, 2021 6:11 am

“The omicron variant in Nevada is a reminder to all those who have not completed their COVID-19 vaccination series, that vaccination can protect against serious illness.” (Photo by CDC on Unsplash)

The Clark County School Board took a step toward mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for its approximately 42,000 employees.

But don’t ask for the details.

The resolution approved by the trustees 5-1 at 12:30 a.m. on Thursday after a nearly eight-hour emergency meeting gives Clark County School District and Superintendent Jesus Jara the greenlight to draft a policy to establish mandatory employee vaccinations. Specific details — like how long employees might have to comply before they face possible termination — will have to be worked out through negotiations with individual labor unions.

The resolution states the district’s vaccination policy will allow for “appropriate requests for exemption … which may be based on certain documented medical circumstances or sincerely held religious beliefs.”

CCSD Chief Negotiator Fikisha Miller told the trustees those exemptions are a matter of federal employment law. A representative from the department that handles disability accommodations and similar issues said the district expects and will be equipped to handle a flood of religious exemptions.

“It’s not CCSD’s business or our policy to doubt the sincerity of people’s religious beliefs,” added Miller.

Miller said the district needed board approval to begin negotiations with unions on mandating vaccines. Negotiations on other contract issues are currently underway with several unions, so the timing is ideal, she added.

Board President Linda Cavazos and trustees Irene Cepeda, Evelyn Garcia Morales, Lola Brooks and Lisa Guzman voted in support of the resolution.

Brooks was the most outright supportive, saying she trusts medical health professionals and saw “no logical reason” not to support the resolution. She did propose an amendment, which was accepted by the board as part of its vote, to add language stating the district would work with its collective bargaining units to determine the mandate details.

“Ultimately it’s our responsibility to keep students and families safe,” she said. “I know vaccines are the best way to do this.”

Trustee Danielle Ford cast the lone vote in opposition, citing concerns about unintended consequences and suspicions that the board would not have any further input into the issue.

Notably, Trustee Katie Williams was not physically present for the meeting, which was held in the Clark County Government Building. Cavazos announced early in the meeting that the outspoken conservative, who days earlier had suggested on social media opposition to vaccine mandates, would be participating in the meeting over the phone. But Williams never spoke and did not cast a vote.

No reason was provided publicly.

Still from CCSD live stream of emergency meeting to discuss employee vaccination mandates.

Before the final vote, the trustees endured almost five hours of public comment, the vast majority of which was in opposition to the resolution to mandate vaccines. Many of the speakers focused on the importance of “medical freedom” and expressed concerns about government overreach. Many spouted misinformation and conspiracy theories that have been proven false.

But not all hesitancy was from people personally opposed to vaccines.

Several executive board members for the Clark County Education Association, which represents the approximately 18,000 educators within the district, spoke during public comment. They did not outright oppose mandating the vaccine but expressed concerns about unintended consequences.

They also expressed a lack of faith in the district’s ability to successfully implement a mandate.

“This is a complicated issue,” said Jim Frazee, CCEA board vice president. “With all due respect, Dr. Jara, you haven’t done complicated very well this year.”

The Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employee, which represents approximately 1,300 school leaders, took a similar position. CCASAPE President Jeff Horn argued that passing the mandate resolution before seeing the language itself could create conditions that are even more unsafe for students and staff.

CCSD’s website on Wednesday listed more than 800 vacancies for licensed/certified professionals like teachers and more than 400 vacancies were listed for support positions like instructional assistants or aides. The district is also short on substitute teachers. It is currently offering bonuses to substitutes based on the number of days they teach this academic year.

Several commenters referenced reports out of Illinois that dozens of bus drivers quit over a Chicago Public Schools’ announced vaccine mandate, which forced the district there to cancel bus routes and leave families scrambling to arrange transportation on the first week of school.

The move toward mandates

Employers — both public and private — have been inching their way toward mandating vaccination for workers.

The Food and Drug Administration on Aug. 23 granted Pfizer full approval of its COVID-19 vaccine (now also known as Comirnaty) for people 16 years old and up. Two days later, on Aug. 25, Moderna announced it had completed its FDA submission for full approval of its covid vaccine, which is currently authorized for emergency use in people aged 18 and up. Janssen (also known as Johnson & Johnson) is also moving toward full approval of their one-shot vaccine.

Notably, Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin quickly ordered all 1.4 million active-duty members of the U.S. armed forces be vaccinated. More than a million already had, according to Defense data. Vaccination will also be required for green card applicants beginning Oct. 1.

Public school teachers in New York City and Los Angeles are facing vaccine mandates. In Chicago and Los Angeles, the deadline for vaccination is Oct.15. In New York City, the deadline is Sept. 27 for receiving a first dose.

Education professionals have been targeted for vaccine mandates because most interact extensively with a segment of the population that does not have any available vaccination options. Pfizer’s vaccine is approved (under emergency authorization) for use in people aged 12 and up.

CCSD’s current vaccine policy requires employees to submit proof of vaccination or undergo mandatory weekly testing, which occurs during off-contract hours. CCSD is covering the cost of those covid tests.

The district currently employs approximately 42,000 people. A district representative at Wednesday’s meeting said 67% of employees have uploaded proof of vaccination to the district, though not all of those uploads have been fully verified yet.

The district has not released its verified vaccination rate, or any information on whether certain employee groups are lagging behind others. Such data might become important as unions negotiate with the district the details on a possible mandate.

During public comment, Frazee of CCEA noted the union had surveyed 9,000 members and that “up to 1,000” had indicated they would walk out if the district implemented a mandate.

CCSD’s online dashboard reports the district has had 1,416 positive cases in August and 1,651 since July 1. Those figures include 980 students, 543 school staff and 128 central staff.

At least one district school — Lamping Elementary School in Henderson — moved entirely to distance learning for 10 days. The district has declined to explain what factors exactly triggered the physical closure of that entire school, saying only that they were coordinating with local health officials. According to the district covid dashboard, the school had fewer than 10 positive cases.

Other schools have quarantined individual students or entire classrooms. The district has declined to disclose how many students are being quarantined due to covid protocol, citing privacy concerns and ignoring the fact that other major school districts are releasing those numbers.

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office did not respond to an emailed request by the Current for comment on the possibility of the state strengthening its current employee vaccine policy, or on the possibility of future action by CCSD.

Trustee Ford in comments prior to her no vote briefly speculated that the reason the board was being pushed toward action might be so other elected leaders in the state don’t have to.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has advised employers they can require workers to get vaccinated, so long as they comply with the American Disabilities Act and other federal laws that require accommodations for qualified people.

Some employers have rushed to implement various levels of mandates; others have remained largely silent.

In Nevada, all state employees are currently required to submit proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing. That group includes more than 2,400 employees within the Department of Corrections, which as of late August reported a staff vaccination rate of 55%, and more than 27,000 employees within the Nevada System of Higher Education.

NSHE next month will seek from the Board of Regents authorization to mandate its employees be fully vaccinated by Dec. 1, according to an agenda item.

Meanwhile, college and university students within NSHE will be required to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1 in order to enroll for spring semester courses. That decision from the Board of Health came after weeks of public pressure from faculty groups.

Other public agencies, including Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, are requiring proof of vaccination for new employees but not current employees.

The largest private employer in Nevada, MGM Resorts International in mid-August announced it would begin requiring vaccination for all new employees and all current salaried employees. That mandate does not apply to its unionized employees. Prior to that, the company was requiring mandatory weekly testing for unvaccinated employees — the cost of which employees had to pay out of pocket.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, three children and one mutt.