Schools lose few employees as they implement new weekly COVID-19 testing mandate; vaccine mandate on horizon

·5 min read

Oct. 27—The majority of teachers and school staff members in Kern County have complied with a state mandate that took effect Oct. 15 that requires them to either prove they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or take weekly tests.

Superintendents from Greenfield Union, Rosedale Union, Fruitvale, Standard and Kernville Union school districts said that the 30 percent to 40 percent of employees who have not been vaccinated on their campuses are testing weekly, largely at sites provided by schools on campus and district sites.

But some local school employees, declining to show proof of vaccination or to take the weekly tests, have been put on unpaid leave as a result of the mandate.

"By following state health orders, schools are simply upholding their legal and ethical obligation. As public agencies, stakeholders should expect no less," said Robert Meszaros, spokesman for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.

Three faculty members were asked to leave the campus of Garces Memorial High School on Oct. 18 after they failed to meet this requirement, according to Chandler Marquez, director of communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno. These faculty members were notified they would be on unpaid leave until they met the state testing or vaccination protocols.

In a statement, Marquez wrote that the Diocese's decisions have been guided by adherence to Catholic moral teaching, protecting the physical and spiritual health of students, faculty and staff and respect for the law.

"Bishop (Joseph) Brennan, Superintendent Joan Bouchard and the Diocese of Fresno will continue to consult with local medical professionals and legal counsel as we use these principles to guide our decision making," Marquez continued.

Five employees out of the 1,700 who work in the Kern County Superintendent of Schools have also been put on unpaid leave. At least two have been identified as teachers at Valley Oaks Charter School; they have both requested a religious exemption.

Employees may soon be put on unpaid leave in other districts where local administrators are working with employees who have raised concerns or filed a request for an exemption. Typically, district human resources departments will try to determine if they can offer a reasonable accommodation.

Selinda Dale, a classified employee with the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District, was told that if she doesn't test by Friday, she can't report to work on campus Monday, according to her husband, Kris Dale. He said she filed a religious exemption request to the mandate with the district. He stated that the couple are particularly concerned about vaccination mandates coming to students and then staffers, he said.

"Once the kids are under the mandate, then that's how they'll get the staff to do it," he said.

Jennifer Irvin, assistant superintendent of educational services for PBVUSD, said employees have until 11:59 p.m. this Friday to upload a negative COVID-19 test to show that they are in compliance with the state mandate. Irvin is hoping to have good news on Monday.

"We want to work with our staff members; we don't want anyone to be on leave," Irvin said.

The district stated in a letter sent to staff Friday what could happen to employees who fail to comply: "Unpaid leaves of absence may negatively impact the employee's retirement earnings, health and welfare benefits, credentialing, and employment with the District."

Paul Meyers, superintendent of Standard School District, said the district has been able to work with all its employees to share information they needed.

Getting testing done on site means it can be done without charge during work time. However, mixing health care and work feels uncomfortable for some employees. It may signal an employee's vaccination status to coworkers.

Some employees have asked where the data from the test or registration is going. In the letter sent to staff last Friday, PBVUSD assured staff that information collected during registration for Color, which provides COVID-19 testing kits, would not be shared with the district.

Employees who don't want to participate with district contractors can go outside the district — but on their own dime and their own time.

Both administrators and employees are looking toward the horizon, with some trepidation, when they expect the state to require vaccination. Gov. Gavin Newsom mentioned employees when he announced he was mandating students be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Natalie Feinberg, a Kern High School District teacher, said she feels "financially blackmailed" into weekly COVID-19 testing, but she said she will not receive the vaccine, even if it means losing her job.

Feinberg is a part of a group called Kern Citizens for Freedom that plans to push back against the state vaccine mandates in schools, whether through the legal system or by recalling local school board members. She said this group includes school employees and parents. They are worried school officials will continue to implement state mandates the same way they have mask mandates or this recent testing requirement.

"They are going to be accountable to the choice," Feinberg said.

Meszaros said Kern County school officials have followed state health orders to avoid putting their districts at legal or financial risk. He said that it has community support.

"While there are people upset with statewide mandates intended to keep the greater community safe, there are many others in our community who are in full support," Meszaros said.

Meyers has recommended his board not impose a vaccine mandate on Standard's staff, because he expects there will be employees who will quit their jobs rather than receive the COVID-19 vaccination. That would exacerbate the district's current staffing shortage. But he expects that a mandate will come down from the state soon.

You can reach Emma Gallegos at 661-395-7394.

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