School Committee discusses possible covid vaccine policy for staff

Sep 23, 2021

The School Committee met on Sept. 23 to discuss a potential covid vaccination policy for staff. 

School Committee Chair Joyce Bacchiocchi made it clear that the committee does not have a policy written, and has not yet decided what such a policy could look like. 

While a number of the staff who spoke assumed the district would fire them if they chose not to get vaccinated, Bacchiocchi said that the committee could also choose to implement a policy that would mandate regular testing of unvaccinated staff. Most speakers who were against a universal vaccine mandate said they would get tested regularly.

It is unclear whether the schools could afford regular testing of unvaccinated staff, or whether the state would help pay for such a program.

Between Sept. 13 and Sept. 22, at least 45 students in Wareham schools have tested positive for covid — that’s 2.5 percent of the student population.

There are no vaccinations currently approved for children under the age of 12, and there is no remote learning option this year for public school students. 

School Committee member Kevin Brogioli had just one question for Wiegandt: Would students be safer if all staff members were vaccinated?

“Of course,” says Wiegandt. “We’re all safer if everybody’s vaccinated.”

Current policy

Wareham Schools — like all schools in the state — currently abide by a mask mandate. Every student and staff member must wear a mask while indoors. Masks can be removed when eating, drinking, during mask breaks and if necessary for participation in an elective, like playing a wind instrument during band class. 

Although the state does not require that students younger than age 5 wear a mask, the state education department said it is “strongly recommended that students younger than age 5 also wear a mask in school.” 

Currently, it is unclear how many staff members are vaccinated, but it seems that the vaccination rate is lower at the elementary schools. 

Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood asked vaccinated staff to voluntarily show proof of vaccination to their school nurse. At the high school, 72 employees, or 58 percent of staff did so; at the Middle School, 69 employees, or 67 percent of staff did so; at Minot Forest, 22 staff, or 37 percent did so; and at Decas Elementary, only 22 staff, or 37 percent, did so. 

Teachers and staff speak

One teacher spoke in favor of a vaccine mandate with rigorous testing for unvaccinated people. Brian Fitzgerald, a fifth-grade teacher, urged people to listen to experts. 

“I cannot go through Youtube and TikTok and come up with information that is equal to the national institutes of health in countries all over the world,” Fitzgerald said. “I can’t equal the experiences of two billion people who have been vaccinated. I can’t equal the decades of expertise that have gone into this.” 

Fitzgerald said that it is "scientifically clear" that people's refusal to get vaccinated is affecting others.

“I believe that my freedom stops at the point where it hurts somebody else,” he said.

His students and his child can’t get vaccinated yet, Fitzgerald said.

“This is part of keeping our kids safe,” Fitzgerald said. “I know there’s been a very vocal and scared minority who is trying to pretend to be a majority. We also know that they’re not. I ask you to consider the health and safety of our students who don’t have any choice but to be vulnerable to this disease right now, and to put in a mandate with a strong testing regimen alongside it.”

Rebecca Myers, a counselor at the Decas School, said that she would quit if she had to get vaccinated but would continue to wear a mask and get tested if necessary.

Marie Ferreira, a bus driver, said that the majority of bus drivers who responded to an informal survey she sent out thought that they should be able to choose whether or not to get vaccinated. She also asked why there was no mask mandate in the town or state in general.

Lisa Ottaviano, a guidance counselor at Minot, rattled off a number of statistics, including from VAERS, a Centers for Disease Control database which allows anyone to report purported side effects of the vaccine. Those reports are not verified, and may be unrelated to the vaccine, or completely false. 

Despite concerns voiced by some at the meeting, it is proven that the vaccines are safe. Serious side effects are very rare.

Dr. Wiegandt encouraged those with specific health concerns to speak with a doctor to determine which vaccine would be best for them.

While those who are vaccinated can still get sick with covid and pass it to others, they are far, far less likely to do so than someone who is unvaccinated.

Vaccinated people are also far less likely to be so sick with covid that they have to be hospitalized — of the more than 178 million vaccinated people in the United States, only 12,570 of them have been hospitalized with a non-fatal case of covid, according to the CDC.

According to the CDC, only 3,040 fully-vaccinated people have died from covid. 

Deanna Semple, the president of the Wareham Education Association, said she wants to support the autonomy of union members, and that she hoped the district would allow employees to follow a testing regimen in lieu of getting vaccinated.

School Committee, district administrators speak

Geoff Swett said that during a pandemic, people have a moral imperative to consider the safety of their community members, but said he has not yet decided what policy he will support.

Swett asked Assistant Superintendent Dr. Andrea Schwamb whether the schools would have the capacity to regularly test unvaccinated staff members through its current test-and-stay program. 

“I don’t know, to be honest,” Schwamb said. The state gives the school enough tests to test those who have been exposed, but she couldn’t say whether the schools would be able to regularly test unvaccinated staff as a precaution.

Shaver-Hood said that she was unsure whether the state would cover the “significant cost” of regularly testing unvaccinated staff. 

Any policy approved by the School Committee will have to be hashed out with each union.