Jessica Phifer, a young cancer survivor, didn’t want the COVID-19 vaccination — until she saw how sick the virus made her 12-year-old son.
Her child participated in virtual learning and never went anywhere, Phifer said, but ended up in the emergency room the day before this last Father’s Day because he couldn’t breath.
“I was against it because I felt like the vaccine came out too soon, and you hear so many stories about if we should or shouldn’t,” said Phifer, a middle school teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “But I realized that even if I wasn’t fully for it, doing it to protect my children and other students was a wise choice for the coming school year.”
Phifer got vaccinated in June 2021. While coronavirus vaccines are currently in use under emergency FDA authorization, health leaders across the globe have stressed that shots are safe and effective.
For now, CMS is not requiring its employees to be vaccinated. Many health care organizations are, including Atrium and Novant in Charlotte. Some corporations aren’t yet requiring vaccines but encouraging workers to get shots via incentives, while others say they’ll maintain separate office space for those who have been vaccinated to not mingle with those who aren’t.
Superintendent Earnest Winston said CMS is not in the position to mandate staff and teachers to be vaccinated. However, he said there would be continued discussion on more “stringent vaccination requirements.” Last week, school board members voted 8-1 to require all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks on school property as classrooms open this month.
Frequently asked questions
How many teachers in CMS — one of the county’s largest employers — have been vaccinated?
The district isn’t keeping track.
Patrick Smith, the district’s assistant superintendent of communications, said in an email that CMS does not have any data on vaccination rates. “With vaccination remaining voluntary at this point, the district has not requested this health information from staff members,” he said.
According to the latest information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80% of pre-K-12 teachers, school staff and child care workers across the country had received at least one vaccine by the end of March.
In many states, education workers were given vaccination priority.
CMS officials this week did not respond to a question from the Observer on whether substitute teachers will be required to be vaccinated.
Should CMS require teachers be vaccinated?
The superintendent seems to think so.
Winston said during a special meeting July 30 that CMS is “not now in a position to do so, but we are reviewing options for how we can more strongly encourage our staff to become vaccinated if they have not already done so.”
Winston continued: “It is my strong recommendation that our staff heed warnings from health experts and take action to protect themselves and the community in this way.”
Will CMS require it?
Preliminary discussions are happening among district leaders on COVID safety protocols. Winston said they may consider frequent testing, among other requirements, for unvaccinated employees.
That’s similar to a decision from county government leaders who say, beginning next month, county workers will need to show proof of vaccination or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.
“Our staff is in discussion with public health officials regarding testing programs and how feasible it is to implement them,” Winston said.
Last week, the Observer reported how CMS will enforce universal mask wearing on buses, in classrooms, and during indoor sporting events.
Should parents ask if their child’s teacher is vaccinated?
A handful of parents the Observer talked to said: Yes.
Parent Tovi Martin said she’s “pretty sure” her child’s teachers are vaccinated, and she understands why parents would be concerned in general.
While Robbin Schettini Nolan’s daughter, who is vaccinated, goes to a private school in Charlotte, she believes that teachers should be vaccinated and she plans on asking her daughter’s teachers if they have had the COVID vaccine this fall.
“Vaccines work and they save lives,” Schettini Nolan said. “Teachers who are not vaccinated or wearing a mask put children’s lives at risk. These are the facts based on science. We would not be in this situation if more people were vaccinated and educated.”
While employers should be thoughtful about privacy and personal questions in the workplace, and medical professionals — like doctors and nurses — are legally prohibited from sharing someone’s health information without explicit consent, a teacher who wants to answer the question of whether they’re vaccinated is entitled to do so.
Etiquette experts recommend avoiding a confrontational tone when inquiring about someone’s vaccination status, and choosing a private moment to pop the question.
Will vaccines make classrooms safer?
Vaccines offer the greatest protection for individuals to avoid serious illness or death from the virus, health experts say.
In recent weeks, health leaders at both the state and federal levels have pointed to a troubling increase of infections, traced back to the Delta variant, as primarily driven by virus spread caused by unvaccinated adults.
While contact tracing and other evidence throughout the pandemic has shown K-12 classrooms aren’t COVID hot spots in most communities, experts have consistently warned that in areas of high transmission, schools are vulnerable to outbreaks. A teacher getting a vaccine not only helps protect unvaccinated children, but offers the vaccinated adult protection as well.
“These kids take off their masks in schools all the time,” Phifer, who also has a 2-year-old, said. “That’s something parents don’t see or think about when they drop their child off. And although we tell them to keep their mask on all day, we can’t control every situation. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”