As teachers inch toward the head of the line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, it begs the question: Can school districts mandate inoculations?
The Arizona School Risk Retention Trust says the answer is yes.
“School districts may require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of on-site work, subject to exemptions required by state and/or federal law,” reads a legal memo prepared for the nonprofit Trust.
The Trust, which provides more than public school districts and community colleges with property and liability insurance, also advised districts to consult with their own attorneys on legal issues related to any vaccination requirement.
The first batches of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Arizona in mid-December for dosing those 16 and older.
Health care workers and long-term care facility staff and residents are among the first to receive the vaccine, to be followed by teachers, law enforcement and other critical workers. Other groups of individuals are farther down the line.
Any guidance from health officials, however, may be a long time coming.
Maricopa County spokesman Ron Coleman said the issue of mandatory shots for teachers isn’t on the agenda any time soon for the Board of Supervisors to consider. School districts generally have been following state and county COVID-19 health guidelines.
Coleman noted that when it would come to an inoculation mandate for staff, district officials probably would be making the call.
“Local school boards generally have governing jurisdiction over their schools,” said Coleman, adding the county is following guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Spokeswoman Heidi Vega of the Arizona School Boards Association agreed that it is up to individual districts to decide.
“We believe currently it is a local district decision whether to require teachers and/or staff be vaccinated as a condition of working, so long as exceptions are made for medical reasons and accommodations under the ADA,” Vega said.
“We would represent the interests of ASBA at the Legislature to keep this local authority,” she added.
School districts that choose to require mandatory vaccinations must first create a process where employees can apply for an exemption based on an ADA disability or a sincerely held religious belief, barring undue hardship to a district, according to the memo.
If a district cannot exempt an employee or there are no possible reasonable accommodations—such as working from home for those who claim a disability or religious belief—“it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace,” the Trust advises.
However, “this doesn’t mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker,” the memo stated. “Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the Equal Employment Opportunity laws or other federal, state and local authorities.”
The Trust’s December memo also weighed in on mandatory vaccination for students, advising that school districts should first seek guidance from the Arizona Department of Health Services before moving forward on that.
“It is unclear whether a school district may require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 without specific authorization from ADHS or a local health department,” the memo said.
“State law indicates that ADHS, in conjunction with the superintendent of public instruction, is responsible for developing documentary proof standards for evidence of vaccination.”
The memo also noted that at this time, the state health department has indicated there were no plans to revise the regulations regarding required immunizations for students.
And because none of the available vaccines are approved for children 16 and younger, it may be some time before schools would need to consider whether to require all students to be immunized, according to the memo.
Asked if the state Health Services Department will make a COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for students once a vaccine becomes available for them, spokeswoman Holly Poynter said her department “will continue to monitor the recommendations issued by the (CDC’s) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices as the data is updated.”
The Arizona Department of Education for now has no position on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for students like for measles and mumps before enrolling in school, according to spokesman Richie Taylor.
“To my knowledge, the vaccines being administered now have not been approved for use in children,” he said, adding that the department will await guidance from health officials.