SLSD vaccination rate nears 90 percent ahead of deadline


Vaccination rates among South Lane School District (SLSD) staff have reached 88 percent, said Superintendent Yvonne Curtis to the SLSD board on Monday (Oct. 4).

The latest report comes as a statewide deadline to vaccinate educators draws closer.

On Aug. 19, Governor Kate Brown announced that all adults in K-12 school campus communities and all healthcare workers must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18.

SLSD prepared by putting together staff surveys this school year, hoping to gain insight into who is already vaccinated, planning to get vaccinated or may be asking for an exception by the deadline.

“The good news is we have a large percentage of people vaccinated,” said Curtis.

There are currently about 367 people vaccinated in the district — about 88 percent — with the remaining 12 percent either requesting exceptions or deciding to become vaccinated.

Among 416 staff surveyed, initially 47 requested exceptions and 11 said they would not be vaccinated or ask for an exception.

Of the 47 asking for exceptions, 39 are classified workers, mostly in transportation and food service.

Eight certified staff members requested the religious exceptions, though two are now retiring.

A handful of religious exemptions were approved among sports staff as well, but “we haven’t even started on the coaches and volunteers for the next season of sports,” said Curtis.

Five of the 11 who initially said they would not comply have now decided to start vaccinations and several are on track be vaccinated by the Oct. 18 deadline. Two others have opted to request exceptions, another two are on leave and one resigned, reportedly due to a desire to homeschool their children.

The final staff member of the 11 had not stated their intention as of Monday’s board meeting due to being out sick.

Curtis said she has made sure to meet with all staff members who are asking for exemptions and attributed the changing of their opinions to principals and department supervisors closely listening to concerns and answering questions, a quality other school districts in the area may lack as they adopt “no exception” and other less accommodating strategies for dealing with unvaccinated staff.

“My goal the entire time is, of course, to make sure that everyone’s healthy and safe,” said Curtis. “And so we’ve been watching our COVID [cases] and to see what spread we had, even though we had some people unvaccinated in our system.”

SLSD reportedly has no COVID spread in schools, she said, “so we felt like we didn’t have to do what some districts around us are doing.”

As of last week, there were 23 students who had been confirmed as testing positive.

Quarantines have also been in effect for some a as a precautionary measure.

The Cottage Grove football team recently canceled its homecoming game scheduled for this Friday (Oct. 8). The team was quarantined following “someone in the football program” contracting COVID, said Athletic Director Garrett Bridgens.

Bridgens did not verify whether the case involved staff or students.

“We’ve been relatively healthy compared to some of the stories I’m hearing in other school districts,” said Curtis, adding that, except for a few isolated incidents, the district seems to be upholding its safety agreements.

For those who remain unvaccinated, Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education recommend special protocols to add more layers of protection measures after the Oct. 18 deadline.

Among measures, unvaccinated workers will be asked to wear KN95 masks, participate in a weekly screening program, sanitize common areas and to eat alone inside the building.

Outdoor tables have been made available for colleagues to eat together.

Unvaccinated staff have expressed concern around the weekly screening, however, as it requires sharing personal information. The school district is continuing to work with staff members to find solutions on this point.

Following its first month of adjustment back to in-person schooling, the district is also likely to start tightening up its rules on safety protocols, which includes mask-wearing and social distancing.

Curtis noted that compassion will be a key factor in navigating the road ahead. She said speaking with those hesitant to take the vaccine illuminated understandable concerns.

“Some of them were real issues that I would have concerns with, too — family members who had blood clots from the vaccination — well, that might make me pretty hesitant, too. So, I understand some of those,” she said. “In the end, we’re all human and we’re all trying to navigate this very unpredictable time that keeps changing. … I think as people get their questions answered, and more time goes by, people are getting more comfortable with the vaccination.”

Those volunteers and staff who have not met requirements by Oct. 18 but intend on complying will be put on unpaid leave and will remain so until they come into compliance.

As with many other districts, maintaining staff will be a concern this year.

New hires and temps are already on their way as some schools such as Harrison Elementary have seen turnover.

In particular, drivers remain a critical staffing issue. Not only is the district down by six drivers, some have had to quarantine.

“And we really need all of them,” Curtis said. “We have everybody driving that can possibly be driving.”

Still, Curtis said she felt SLSD is doing better than other districts which are telling parents they can no longer transport kids.

One idea for addressing staffing problems capitalizes on the fact that bigger districts are not allowing for certain vaccine exceptions.

Curtis suggested to the board on Monday that staff who have been let go by those districts may be available for hire at SLSD, but it will depend on if the district can offer exceptions for new hires after the deadline passes. The district will wait for legal counsel before making a decision on that front.

In the meantime, SLSD is also putting focus on the needs of students.

Part of the district’s education strategy this year revolves around “rigorous learning.”

“To ensure that rigorous learning is making a difference, we want to be looking at student work and student accomplishment and student data,” said Curtis. “And the strategy we’re developing around that is creating professional learning communities.”

Achieving this calls for establishing a “collaborative culture.”

“Culture eats structure for breakfast,” Curtis said. “We could work on structure every day, but if we don’t work on the culture first and have that be authentic, transparent, caring for one another, the structure really doesn’t get to make a lot of difference.”

One manifestation of this is the Student Voice project, which will focus on the role of student stories in the classroom. Information collected from these stories are meant to be included in educator decisions about how to better service student needs.

The program states on its website that it aims to “position students as storytellers, organizers and partners who advocate for student-driven solutions to educational inequity.”

The next SLSD board work session is scheduled for Oct. 18 at 5:30 p.m.

Meetings are conducted in a hybrid format. Links to virtual meetings can be found by accessing the board’s agenda page on the website at www.slane.k12.or.us.

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