COVID-19 Vaccine Booster Mandatory For District 113 Staff

·8 min read

HIGHLAND PARK, IL — Booster shots are set to be mandatory for all Township High School District 113 employees, starting in May, as the result of a vote Tuesday by the district's narrowly divided school board.

Board members voted 4-3 to approve a resolution requiring boosters for faculty and staff. Board President Jodi Shapira, Vice President Ken Fishbain, Rick Heineman and Dan Struck voted in favor of the mandate. Secretary Gayle Byck, Jaime Barraza and Anne Neumann voted against.

Superintendent Bruce Law said he did not want to weigh into discussions of personal freedom versus social responsibility but was, instead, mainly considering the operation of Deerfield and Highland Park high schools.

"What I'm really concerned about is making sure that we are able to efficiently and effectively, safely— as safely as possible — run the schools," Law said. "This is a very difficult position, I understand, all school districts are in right now. This is very difficult."

The latest interim public health guidance for schools from the Illinois Department of Public Health loosens quarantine requirements for people who have received COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

Law said about 40 percent of staff have so far reported that they are already boosted. He and the members of the board who supported the booster mandate emphasized that requiring all teachers to be boosted would mean fewer of them need to quarantine.

The superintendent said the district is required to engage in discussions called "impact bargaining" with the collective bargaining unit representing of its certified staff — the District 113 Educational Association, or DEA, which will provide a chance for staff to share concerns.

"But it's really important that at the end of impact bargaining, if we reach impasse, then we move forward," Law said, "unlike decisional bargaining where we have to come to an agreement."

Fishbain cited studies showing that COVID-19 vaccination boosters increase protection against symptomatic coronavirus infections and the effectiveness of the district's existing staff vaccination requirement.

"The evidence is it seems to be effective against keeping people from being seriously ill," Fishbain said. "We did this [mandated vaccines] in August. Our schools were open in August. Our schools have been open. To my knowledge, our staff has generally been present. The vaccination requirement [is] one of the things that has kept them from being seriously ill."

And Struck said the district has a legitimate stake in the health and workplace availability of its employees.

"As an employer, the district does actually have an interest in seeing that quarantine time is as limited as possible, and the breadth and severity of when employees get COVID is less severe, and they're not out of work as much," Struck said. "And for that reason I think there is, frankly, a legitimate reason [and] justification as an employer to require the booster because it limits the impact of potential absences."

But Neumann said the definition of "fully vaccinated" was clear in August, and public health officials have not yet redefined it to include more than two doses of an mRNA vaccine or one jab of Johnson & Johnson's.

"I just do not believe that we have a path right now to take the logic we had in August and apply it to boosters today," Neumann said. "We may have that path tomorrow."

Byck also expressed concern about the school board getting ahead of the definition of full vaccination used in U.S. Centers for Disease Control or Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines.

"We have put ourselves out there and prided ourselves in following the guidelines," Byck said. "The guidelines are not in line with this."

Barraza suggested administrators look at a way to make the policy flexible enough to evolve as more public health guidance emerges so board members do not have to keep discussing the issue every few months.

"So can we write the policy in a way that it is more long-lasting, and we don't have to keep on having the conversation," Barraza asked, "understanding that we do have some immediate implications around the length of staffing quarantine that [Superintendent Bruce] Law brought up."

Shapira, the board president, said she had been fully in support of the measure two weeks ago but later wavered.

"All of those things that we've done has been to make sure that the kids have as much contact with their teachers as possible, and the changing of the quarantine guidelines for me is the big one," Shapira said.

"Because everything we have been doing has been for students to be in school, for the social emotional well-being of our students to be there and for our staff to be there," she continued. "And un-boosted requires a quarantine and boosted does not, and that's where I'm really struggling, because I say I want my kids sitting with their teacher."

Ahead of the vote, past and present leaders of the DEA voiced their opposition to the booster mandate.

Marty Esgar, a Deerfield High School science teacher and past association president, noted that his entire family was both vaccinated and boosted but still got COVID-19 and still had to quarantine. He said he knows other who have had the same experience.

"We're a divided country, we're a divided community, and if we're going to show respect to everybody there can be no greater show of respect than to let grown people make their own choice about whether they wish to get the booster shot or not," Esgar said.

"To tie it to employment and to actually fire people or let them go for not wanting to do that, when there really isn't the health benefit that weighs equally to that, that is so disrespectful. It's a quiet disrespect. It's a paternalistic disrespect. You know better what I should have than I can make that decision for myself," he added. "It isn't going to do any good. Please show your faculty, who've put their whole life in this district, show them the respect by not overreaching."

Jerry Lavin, current association president and a DHS social studies teacher, said the board had no legal or scientific basis to mandate boosters. He said there can no longer be an argument about workplace safety, since administrators have said repeatedly that the layers of COVID-19 transmission mitigation in place in the district means there is not a problem with transmission within schools.

Lavin said he had heard the district was seeking to reduce demand for substitutes. (Earlier this month, prior to the latest quarantine update, District 113 canceled a day of in-person classes, citing a large number of absent staff and insufficient substitutes. Shapira said Tuesday that there was no longer any substitute shortage.) Lavin said the district would be better off paying its substitutes more or offering them health benefits, like some other North Shore school districts do.

"Your answer is to focus on incentives to increase the supply of substitutes, not to compel teachers and other licensed staff to take the booster," Lavin said. "If you truly cared about the health of the employees — and I'm not saying you should necessarily — then you'd be focusing on whether they're smoking or drinking or engaging in any other conduct outside the workplace, but you have no statutory or common law authority to regulate the health of your employees outside of the workplace."

The teacher's bargaining unit has not taken a position on the appropriateness of the vaccine booster for individuals, which it regards as a personal matter, according to a statement Lavin provided after the vote.

"Once again, the Board has arrogated to itself the role of deputy commissioner for community health, but where neither 'the community' nor workplace health is at issue," it said "Rather than do its job under the school code, the Board chooses to engage in virtue signaling and a continued abuse of its statutory powers."

While District 113 is the first local public school district to mandate boosters for staff, both public and private universities in Illinois have announced similar requirements over the past two months.

About 40 percent of fully vaccinated Americans have received booster doses, and the average number of daily boosters administered is down to less than half of its peak from last month. An estimated 86 million fully vaccinated people in the United States who are eligible to get a booster but have not yet done so, according to the Associated Press.

An AP-NORC Center poll found that 59 percent of people think vaccination is essential for full participation in public life without feeling at risk of infection, but only 47 percent feel the same about booster shots.

District officials did not publicly post a copy of the booster requirement resolution as part of its agenda ahead of the meeting. The specifics of implementation still need to be worked out ahead of the May 2 deadline, according to a district spokesperson.

It fell to the board president to cast the final and decisive vote on the booster mandate at Tuesday's meeting.

"Oh Jiminy Crickets," said Shapira, who at the start of the meeting said a community member had recently come to her workplace to yell at her about a school board-related matter. "I believe it's keeping our kids in school, I'm going with an aye."

This article originally appeared on the Highland Park Patch

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