Reasons for missing vaccination data vary among school districts

·7 min read

Sep. 17—About one in seven Maine schools was missing from a list of staff vaccination rates published as part of a statewide database this week, and school district officials on Thursday offered explanations ranging from technical difficulties and missed deadlines to frustration about the data's accuracy.

One superintendent — Eric Haley in Waterville — said his district has not submitted the required staff vaccination data to the state because there is no way to gather the information accurately. "I get where the state is coming from," Haley said. "They're getting requests from parents about how many staff are vaccinated, but you can't really get that information."

According to the Maine Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, 15 percent of schools — or about 100 schools — did not provide required data on staff vaccination rates in time to be published in a new database Wednesday. They include schools in some of the state's largest districts such as Buxton-based School Administrative District 6 and Scarborough Public Schools.

The state has been working with school districts to offer technical assistance and guide them through the reporting process and officials say they expect to see increased reporting as the data is updated monthly.

"As with all new data collection efforts, this is a work in progress, with the data quality and completeness expected to increase each month," Kelli Deveaux, a Department of Education spokeswoman, said in an email. "School entities are encouraged to post their own rates and share their process as well."

Superintendents offered a variety of reasons Thursday for why their data hadn't been published, with many saying they simply missed the reporting deadline or, in the case of Scarborough, encountered technical issues. Waterville's Haley, meanwhile, echoed concerns voiced by Falmouth's superintendent earlier in the week about the challenges some districts are facing in trying to collect accurate vaccination rates.

He said the district can't legally require staff to report whether they are vaccinated and as a result he believes the information they've been able to gather doesn't paint a full picture of staff vaccinations.

"If one person says, 'I'm vaccinated but I don't want to tell you,' there's one that's vaccinated but will be counted as not vaccinated," Haley said. "That's the only option the state has, so I refuse to be part of what is in essence inaccurate data."

Waterville Public Schools has been collecting vaccine data on a voluntary basis if employees are willing to show documentation. About 240 out of 400 employees had done so and verified their status as vaccinated prior to the start of the school year, Haley said. "We do have a number from people who have told us, but we haven't published it because it's inaccurate," he said. "There are people who have been vaccinated but not told us, I'm sure."

Peter Lowe, a partner at the law firm Brann & Isaacson, said there's no clear answer as to whether schools can mandate employees to report their vaccination status. "They can certainly request it," he said. "Whether they can require it in public schools, it isn't just a plain yes or no."

A REQUEST OR A REQUIREMENT?

One factor that could complicate such a requirement in schools is that so many of their employees are unionized, and a requirement could entail negotiations. An FAQ offering guidance to schools from the state says DHHS has the authority to request staff vaccination data, but it isn't clear if schools can in turn mandate reporting from their employees. "The Department of Education is ultimately the regulatory body for schools and I think schools will be cautious in mandating it unless they get the green light from the department," Lowe said.

The state announced its requirement that schools report staff vaccination rates in July and has since held informational webinars and distributed guidance to schools to help them. But each district has had to develop its own reporting system and process for data collection. Some requested proof of vaccination while others utilized surveys. Some created options within the survey to indicate a preference to not disclose vaccination status and some used anonymous surveys while others requested names, Deveaux said.

Overall, the state has reported an average 76 percent vaccination rate for school staff and a vaccination rate of 69 percent for school central operations staff, such as employees in central offices and bus drivers who aren't assigned to a single school building.

Falmouth Superintendent Gretchen McNulty also expressed concerns Wednesday about the data collection process and said the numbers in the state database for Falmouth, including a 54.7 percent vaccination rate at Falmouth Elementary School, are "significantly lower than is the reality" because the district held itself to a higher standard than required by asking staff for proof of vaccination rather than simply survey responses.

"What the data shows is only the percent of staff who have voluntarily shared their vaccine status," McNulty said in an email. "We can not infer that staff who have not voluntarily shared proof of vaccination at this time are unvaccinated, nor do we believe that is the case."

Some school departments encountered technical difficulties or missed the reporting deadline with the state, but said they have high vaccination rates that just haven't been reported.

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

In Scarborough, Superintendent Geoff Bruno said the lack of data for that district was due to a technical issue that he took responsibility for. Of more than 300 employees who have responded to a district survey, 97 percent have said they are fully vaccinated, Bruno said in a letter to the community Thursday. His office did not respond to a request for a breakdown by school.

Information for Kennebunk-based Regional School Unit 21 also was not included in the state database due to a formatting issue, Superintendent Terri Cooper said in a news release. The district conducted a voluntary survey to collect vaccination information and has an average vaccination rate of 92 percent across its six schools. Vaccination rates range from 81 percent at the Mildred L. Day School and Kennebunkport Consolidated School to 97 percent at the Middle School of the Kennebunks and Kennebunk Elementary School.

The district's central office staff and other employees in RSU 21 reported a vaccination rate of nearly 47 percent, with an average for all employees district-wide of 81 percent. "This protects our whole school community," Cooper said. "We have and will continue to encourage employees as well as students 12 and older to get vaccinated. We are aiming for 100 percent."

In SAD6, Superintendent Paul Penna said the state portal closed before the district had added its data, but out of 561 staff who responded to an optional Google survey, 91 percent are vaccinated. The district has 667 employees. Penna did not respond to a request for a breakdown of vaccination rates by school.

In Hermon, Superintendent Jim Chasse said the district sent the data a day late, resulting in it not being included in the state's database. The district has a 93 percent vaccination rate overall, including vaccination rates of 93 percent at Hermon High School, 87 percent at Hermon Middle School, 100 percent at Patricia A. Duran Elementary and 79 percent among central operations staff.

At least one school that did report on time has said its vaccination rate in the database is not accurate.

Union 122 Superintendent Karla Michaud said the state's 16.2 staff vaccination rate for Woodland Consolidated School in Aroostook County is wrong and the school's vaccination rate is actually 84.6. Michaud said the low vaccination rate that was published caused "somewhat of an uproar" Thursday from parents who wanted know why more school staff weren't vaccinated.

Information was not immediately available from the education department Thursday afternoon about the accuracy of the number for Woodland or whether any other districts have reported errors.

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