Could COVID-19 vaccine be required for students or school staff? - AZEdNews
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Could COVID-19 vaccine be required for students or school staff?

A Prescott Unified School District Teacher Leads Her Students In Learning On The First Day Of School. Photo Courtesy Prescott Unified School District

After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine on Monday, Arizonans are wondering if the vaccine could be required for students eligible for it or school staff.

Concerns increased after New York City said Monday all public-school teachers and school staff are required to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 27. Earlier, the city required employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine or be tested weekly for it.

In Arizona, a government agency determines vaccine requirements.

“The Arizona Department of Education does not oversee vaccine requirements in public schools. The Arizona Department of Health Services is the state agency that decides which vaccines are required for public school students,” said Morgan Dick, public information officer for the Arizona Department of Education.

Vaccine concerns during this COVID-19 surge

From July through mid-August, more than 86% of COVID-19 cases are among Arizonans not fully vaccinated, said Steve Elliot, spokesman for Arizona Dept. of Health Services in an Aug. 23 press release.

Ninety-one percent of people hospitalized in July and 86% of those who died from COVID-19 in July were not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Elliot said.

“The approved COVID-19 vaccines, which benefit from 20 years research into coronaviruses, offer the surest protection against a virus that continues hospitalizing and killing those who aren’t vaccinated,” said Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona Department of Health Services director.

Since school started, Peoria Unified School District has reported more than 330 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff, according to a Peoria Independent article. Scottsdale Unified School District had 142 cases last week, which “exceeded anything we saw all of last year for a single week,” said Supt. Scott Menzel in an interview with KJZZ 91.5 FM yesterday. Schools in Yavapai County are seeking more substitute teachers to lead classrooms due to a higher absence rate as COVID-19 spreads, according to an article in The Daily Courier.

More than 30 school districts across the state have required students and staff to wear masks in school buildings in response to increasing COVID-19 cases in their communities.

Phoenix Children’s Hospital said admissions are up 50% from May as COVID-19 hospitalizations rise for children in Arizona. Thousands of students are in quarantine after they were exposed to COVID-19 as mandated by the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, according to an Anthem Independent article.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman remains optimistic that the announcement of full FDA approval for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine will help boost vaccination rates across Arizona, Dick said.

“In order to safely provide in-person instruction to all students, it is critical that every Arizonan who is eligible for a vaccine, get one as soon as possible to curb the spread of COVID-19 and the rising Delta variant,” Dick said.  

“Vaccines are one of the best tools we have to keep the spread of many viruses, including COVID-19, from disrupting learning. The Department encourages parents to talk to their family doctors about the importance of both childhood vaccinations and other shots,” Dick said.

AZDHS makes decisions on students’ vaccines

The Arizona Department of Health Services adopts by rule which vaccines are required, said Leigh Jensen, governmental relations associate for Arizona School Boards Association.

“There are exemptions for personal beliefs – including religious beliefs – and for medical reasons – which requires a doctor’s note stating that a vaccine would be harmful to the student’s health,” Jensen said. “The process is just like adopting rules for any other state agency, with public notice, comment, and input.”

A law passed in the budget bills this year that doesn’t allow ADHS to require a vaccine for school attendance that is currently under an Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA, Jensen said.

“Now that Pfizer is formally approved by the FDA, in theory,  ADHS could require it for schools. However, in this year’s budget bills they also passed a provision that states a school district or charter school may not require a student or teacher to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 or to wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction,” Jensen said.

Vaccine: Laws and lawsuits

Laws passed by the Arizona Legislature as part of the budget bills and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey that prohibit school mask mandates and prevent schools from requiring students or staff to be vaccinated take effect Sept. 29, 2021.

But a lawsuit filed by education and children’s advocates and several individuals against the State of Arizona seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to block “substantive policy provisions that have nothing to do with the budget” in House Bill 2898,  Senate Bill 1824, and Senate Bill 1825 from going into effect.

The lawsuit says the bills have titles relating to health or education budget reconciliation, and violate the Arizona Constitution’s requirement that laws approved by Legislature must only cover one subject and their contents must be properly noticed in the bills’ titles. 

“Until, if or when, ADHS decides to adopt a rule requiring COVID vaccines, this is all pure speculation,” Jensen said. “If that ever happened, there would be a legal web to untangle, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

Legal opinion on vaccine

Teachers and school staff were among the early priority groups in Arizona to be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines, and many have been vaccinated. But could COVID-19 vaccinations become mandatory for teachers and other school staff in Arizona?

Concerns grew earlier this month after the Tucson City Council voted 6-1 to require city employees to prove they had received their first COVID-19 vaccine by Aug. 24, 2021, or be suspended for five days without pay.

Then today, Delta Air Lines said employees who do not receive a COVID-19 vaccine will be pay an additional $200 a month for their health insurance to help cover potential hospitalization charges since the average hospital stay costs the airline $40,000 and also be tested for COVID-19 more often. Yesterday, United Airlines required employees to show proof of vaccination by a certain date or lose their jobs, noting it was a safety decision and citing evidence of the vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing serious illness.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in a 40-page legal opinion released late last week that private businesses can require employees and customers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination but must provide reasonable accommodations for those who cannot because of disability or sincerely held religious belief.

In addition, Attorney General Brnovich said local governments cannot require employees to receive a COVID-10 vaccination after the state law takes effect on Sept. 29, 2021.