Winthrop Superintendent James Hodgkin, second from right, sits Wednesday next to Joseph Pietroski at the school committee meeting. The meeting took place in person and was also livestreamed via Zoom. Zoom screenshot

WINTHROP — Winthrop Public Schools are requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for substitute teachers as well as any volunteers. That decision led to a larger discussion about what a federal mandate might mean for full-time staff.

At Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting, Winthrop Superintendent James Hodgkin said the decision came as a way to keep students safe, especially as COVID-19 cases are still rising in Maine at a rapid rate.

In his letter to the school board, he called the decision a “mixed issue” because the school district is still short on substitute teachers, but said it ultimately makes “no sense” to allow substitute teachers into the building if they are not vaccinated.

“We hope by getting some vaccinated volunteers to work in the building, it provides some relief to staff and provides coverages,” Hodgkin said at Wednesday night’s meeting. Currently, only the Winthrop Grade School has volunteers.

For the grade school specifically, he said it makes sense to have the volunteers back to help with handing out breakfast, in addition to helping with reading to the younger students. One administrator in the audience noted that some parents, specifically mothers with medical backgrounds, have aided with pool testing and in the health office when one of the nurses was out. With pool testing, two mothers have come in on a weekly basis to help conduct tests.

Winthrop Grade School Nurse Melissa Brewer said 25 staff members have enrolled in pool testing and, for the most part, are already vaccinated staff members. As for students, she said 80% to 90% of the grade school has enrolled in pool testing.

Hodgkin said the Winthrop Public Schools’ staff have a vaccination rate of 86%, which is mandated to be reported by school districts by the Department of Health and Human Services. The number Hodgkin gave is lower than the amount DHHS reported as of Thursday morning, which was 93.3%.

The committee also discussed the implications of a vaccination mandate or, for those who choose not to be vaccinated, a COVID-19 testing requirement, as suggested by President Joe Biden during the last few weeks. Committee members talked about it as if they would like it to take place, and Hodgkin said he wanted to have a preliminary conversation with them in advance of any federal regulations being implemented.

“We are trying to cover all of the possibilities,” Hodgkin said.

Committee member Kelley Hooper wondered if getting ahead of the mandate and asking staff to volunteer to pool test, or COVID-19 test, would be ideal if a mandate seems likely.

“My thought is we should start it beforehand, so we can roll it out,” said Hooper. “If we start sooner, they can decide how important it is to them. … If a staff member is going to be upset about this, or mandatory (vaccine or tests), I think we should know sooner than later, so we can find replacements for them who are aware of it.”

During public comment, Winthrop Town Councilor Barbara Alexander encouraged the School Committee to “take leadership roles” in promoting the COVID-19 vaccine for a mandate that “seems likely.” She called for the board to mandate the vaccine for school staff in the same way it is mandated for medical professionals.

“Calling for 100% vaccination with only the narrow medical exemption allowed for the medical community throughout the Winthrop School District and making a statement about expectations is something that can be done,” Alexander said.

She noted the Winthrop High School staff vaccination rate is lower than the middle and grade school, but Hodgkin said it is because there are fewer staff members at the high school. He said there are only four unvaccinated staff members at the high school and more at the other schools, but the statistics do not reflect it because of there being more staff members.

Winthrop High School’s staff vaccination rate is 74.2%, Winthrop Middle School is 93.1% and Winthrop Grade School is at 85.5% per DHHS data Thursday morning.

The committee agreed to be certain before any decision on mandating a vaccine for staff were made, but Hodgkin said any decision would be made in the best interest of safety for staff and students.

“As long as schools have been in place, the number one thing families and communities expect of schools are to keep kids safe,” he said. “We want to keep people in the schools and employees safe as well.”

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