ST. JOHNSBURY — No jab, no job.
St. Johnsbury Academy will require all staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by October, according to a policy announced earlier this month.
Employees not already vaccinated must receive their first shot by Sept. 1 and their second (if needed) by Oct. 1, according to the policy. Religious and medical exemptions will be permitted.
Staff vaccinations will create an added layer of protection for unvaccinated students against the more contagious, more potent Delta strain, said Headmaster Sharon Howell.
“We decided to require vaccination against COVID-19 for all school employees when it became clear that we were still going to be contending with the pandemic as we began the school year, and that the advice from public health experts was that vaccination is a key tool in mitigating the spread of the new Delta variant right as school starts,” Howell said.
According to Howell, the school’s COVID Response Team created the policy based on Vt. Agency of Education guidance and in consultation with legal counsel.
She said the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees “enthusiastically” supported the policy.
It mirrors staff vaccination requirements at a number of private schools nationwide, she said.
Many private schools have also required student vaccinations, something the Academy declined for the time being, she said.
Howell would not say if any workers had resigned over the vaccination mandate but reported strong support among SJA employees.
Half of the Academy staff participated in a May survey, and 96% indicated they were already vaccinated or planned to be.
“We have not had any formal complaints about the policy, or any legal challenges. Folks can absolutely request an exemption on medical or religious grounds, yes, and we will work with them to determine if that is appropriate. We will go about it in the same way we go about determining any exception to any policy — interactively and compassionately, with safety and fairness as priorities,” Howell said, adding, “We are prepared if employees decide to resign because of this requirement, though obviously, we hope that they will instead get vaccinated if they are able to. The safety of our students and community is our first concern, and this requirement is key to that safety in the current environment.”
Nationwide, five states — California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington — have announced vaccine mandates for K-12 personnel. So have some cities like Chicago and New York City. Teachers’ unions in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have voiced support for vaccine mandates, and the National Education Association supports a requirement for all teachers to either be vaccinated or submit to regular testing.
In addition to vaccination, the Academy is requiring all students, staff and visitors to wear masks indoors at all times to start the school year.
Howell said those steps are warranted.
She said vaccinations and other measures crate layers of protection, and together will allow the school to continue its educational mission without significant interruption.
“The Delta variant that makes up the most COVID cases in Vermont and the US right now is 1,000 times more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus, and there is good data — indeed, a massive trial across the country — showing that being vaccinated makes you significantly less likely to be infected or to spread the virus. The available COVID-19 vaccines have been widely proven to protect against infection, but also against hospitalization and death. Public health experts from the CDC, the National and Vermont state Education Associations, and most major health and education organizations are asking schools to require the vaccine for employees,” she said.
“We have a responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for our students and staff — indeed a safe living environment for our boarding students and the staff who live with them — and that directive underlies the rest of our educational mission. If we can’t come to school for health reasons, we are less able to fulfill our mission as an institution. When we know of a way to make everyone safer coming to school, we are going to follow that way — particularly knowing how important keeping school open in person is going to be, and how much more likely we are to do that if we have an immunized community. We are also modeling for our students that responsible use of good scientific data can lead to a healthier world.”