Portland’s board of education rejected a proposed COVID-19 vaccination mandate for its staff Tuesday, making the decision after closing Portland High School for a day in response to two cases of the virus reported over the Labor Day weekend.

Concern about losing bus drivers and being unable to transport students prompted the school board to vote 5-4 at its meeting Tuesday night against what would have been the first mandate by a school district in Maine.

The resolution, proposed by board members Aura Russell-Bedder and Adam Burk, was placed on the meeting agenda over the weekend, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said.

“We are the only district (in Maine) considering a vaccine mandate,” Botana told the board Tuesday night.

The proposal to mandate vaccinations for school department staff came just a few days after full-time, in-person classes reopened at Portland schools and other school districts across Maine.

The closure of Portland High was intended to allow the school to sort through and notify close contacts of the two people who tested positive. The tracing could not be completed over the holiday weekend, Botana said in an email. The school did not operate remotely Tuesday and was expected to reopen to in-person classes Wednesday.

The high school closure came as COVID-19 cases also are complicating the start of the school year elsewhere in Maine and nationally. Around the country, more than 1,400 schools have closed or transitioned to remote learning for a period of time since the start of the school year, according to Burbio.com, a data service that aggregates school and government information and that is tracking 2021-22 school disruptions.

Sponsors of the vaccination mandate resolution, which would require staff to demonstrate that they have been fully vaccinated by Nov. 1, said that 92 percent of all Portland School District staff are fully vaccinated. Staff could be exempted from the proposed mandate for a medical exemption, but any employee who refused to get vaccinated would need to submit to weekly COVID testing. If they refused weekly testing, they would have faced termination under the proposal.

Despite the encouraging vaccination rate among most district employees, Botana told the board that the transportation services department has not kept pace. He said the transportation department has nine openings, meaning the department is 80 percent staffed. He said about 25 percent of the transportation staff are not vaccinated. If they were required to get vaccinated, Botana expressed concern that unvaccinated bus drivers would simply resign and find a job in another district where vaccinations are not required.

“We wouldn’t be able to operate a transportation service and parents would have to find another way to get their child to school,” Botana said.

There are also 13 ed-tech vacancies in the special education department. Board members, who voted against the resolution, expressed concern that if vaccinations are mandated more staff would quit, worsening a districtwide staffing shortage. The district currently has about 50 unfilled positions.

Chairperson Emily Figdor proposed an amendment to the mandate resolution which would have required that only school building staff be vaccinated. Her amendment failed 8-1.

A staff vaccination report presented by the district’s Human Resources Department showed vaccination rates are fairly high in Portland schools. According to the report, 96 percent of members of the Portland Education Association are fully vaccinated, 100 percent of school administrators, 90 percent of educational technicians, and 94 percent of elementary school staff.

“We need to do as much as possible to stop this virus in its tracks,” Russell-Bedder said. “We need to do everything we can in our power to protect students.”

“Overall, the spirit of this resolution is one of cheerleading. Overall, we’re doing great, but we can do better,” Burk said.

Board member Roberto Rodriguez said the district will lose employees as a result of the mandate. Rodriguez,  Figdor, Micky Bondo, Jeff Irish and Yusuf Yusuf, voted against the mandate with Sarah Thompson, Anna Trevorrow, Russell-Bedder and Burk voting in support.

Public reaction to the mandate was overwhelmingly in support of requiring staff to get vaccinated during a public comment period that lasted about 40 minutes.

‘UNSCIENTIFIC DECISIONS’

Dr. Madeline Goodman said her son attends Portland High School. He contracted COVID after becoming fully vaccinated in June. He has since recovered. She urged the board to adopt the mandate as a way to protect students.

“We (health care providers) are exhausted. We are begging people to get vaccinated,” Goodman told the board. “This pandemic is not going away.”

“It’s a proven fact that vaccines are the most effective way to protect the children. Choosing not to get vaccinated is not a civil rights decision,” said Michael Dixon, another Portland parent, who supports mandated vaccinations for school staff. “People are making unreasonable, unscientific decisions. We need to stop enabling that.”

“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open,” Anna Fincke, the mother of two Portland students said. “Keeping schools open requires keeping COVID out. We need to surround our children with vaccinated adults.”

The Maine Department of Education doesn’t have a comprehensive list of school closures and transitions to remote learning in response to COVID, but is asking schools to report closures to assist them in monitoring and offering support.

Already some schools in Aroostook County, which typically has an earlier start to the school year than other parts of Maine, have had to delay their starts or pivot to remote learning, said Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the department, in an email.

On Sunday, Regional School Unit 21 Superintendent Terri Cooper announced Mildred L. Day School in Arundel is moving to remote learning through Sept. 12 after 143 people were identified as close contacts of people from the school who tested positive. In addition, four classrooms and a small group are in remote learning also through Sept. 12 in response to a case at Sea Road School in Kennebunk.

And in the Somerset County town of North Anson, Regional School Unit 74 canceled freshman orientation at Carrabec High School last week after a handful of cases were reported at the high school.

The department isn’t tracking all cases in schools this year but is publishing a weekly list of open school outbreaks. An outbreak is defined as three or more epidemiologically linked, confirmed cases from among different households over 14 days. As of Thursday there were three open outbreaks at Maine schools: Caribou High School, Hermon High School and Mt. View High School.

According to state guidance, students, staff and teachers who test positive for COVID-19 should isolate until they meet U.S. CDC criteria for release from isolation. Close contacts – people who have had exposure within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes or more – should quarantine from school and school activities for 10 days except under certain conditions, such as if they are fully vaccinated or had a previous infection or if the school enforces a masking policy and the exposed student was at least three feet away from the infected student.

The exception from quarantine for masked students applies only in classrooms, however, not in buses or cafeterias and not at school activities, and also does not apply to teachers or other adults.

The district has said it does not disclose specific information about people who test positive, including whether they are staff or students or what grade level they’re associated with, because of health privacy laws.

Portland High’s closure comes a week after students there returned for the first day of classes of the 2021-22 school year. Students are learning full-time in-person this year with COVID precautions in place including universal masking indoors and on buses, enhanced cleaning and distancing to the extent possible.

‘IT’S TERRIFYING TO ME’

Rachel Pargeter, whose daughter is a junior at Portland High, said she was not surprised by the closure Tuesday and it has her worried about whether the school has the right measures in place to appropriately contact trace and limit the spread of the delta variant, especially at lunch time. “It’s like business as normal except they’re supposed to be wearing a mask and it’s terrifying to me,” Pargeter said.

She said she is also supportive of a vaccine mandate for students and staff. “I actually believe they should be in school but everyone should be vaccinated so we don’t have to have these constant rolling closures and rolling quarantines,” Pargeter said. “I can’t imagine the administration wants to have their staff continually dealing with this.”

Prior to the cases reported at Portland High, the district reported a total of three positive cases during the first week of school. They included one case at King Middle School, one case at Lyseth Elementary School and one case at Reiche Community School. Thirty-two people were deemed close contacts in those cases and the schools remained open.

According to guidance on the district’s website, a school, grade level or cohort could be closed at any time with such decisions dependent on factors including where cases are in a building, the timeline of cases, staffing and the number of close contacts.

Should any school or class need to go to remote learning, the district “will follow practices and procedures we developed during periods of remote learning during the last school year,” said Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for Portland Public Schools. She said the district is following the quarantine guidelines in the state’s standard operating procedures, as well as other recommendations from the Maine Department of Education and U.S. CDC.

Other protocols in place include pooled testing of groups of students in kindergarten through grade 6, frequent hand washing and having students and staff spend as much time outdoors as possible. The district is also encouraging vaccination for those who are eligible. An estimated 85 to 89 percent of eligible students ages 12 and up in Portland Public Schools are vaccinated, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among staff, 92 percent of school-based employees are vaccinated and 83 percent of non-school based employees, such as those who work in the central kitchen, transportation and the superintendent’s office are vaccinated. Vaccination rates for regular, non-temporary employees at schools range from 88 percent at Deering High School to 100 percent of employees at Longfellow Elementary School.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is collecting staff vaccination rates from all Maine schools and has said it plans to publicly post that information online later this month.

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