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Baltimore City schools not ready to start enforcing employee vaccine mandates and penalties

Despite a Nov. 1 school system deadline for Baltimore City school employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19, school officials say they are not ready to start enforcing penalties up to, and including, terminating employees who fail to comply.

School officials insist they want every employee who doesn’t qualify for a medical or religious exemption to be vaccinated, but they say they also want to work with employees who have concerns.

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In Harford County, Southampton Middle School nurse Michele Keeney, right, talks with teacher Patrice Campbell as she administers the first round of the COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic last year at Patterson Mill Middle/High School.
In Harford County, Southampton Middle School nurse Michele Keeney, right, talks with teacher Patrice Campbell as she administers the first round of the COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic last year at Patterson Mill Middle/High School. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

The system has 10,000 employees, of which about 90% are vaccinated or have an exemption. The rate for teachers who are vaccinated or have an exemption is 95% and for principals it is 98%.

The rates are higher than most school staffs in the state, and are slightly higher than the rates for the Maryland’s adult population, which was 88.5% on Saturday.

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State statistics in late October showed a range of school district vaccination rates among teachers in the state, from 48% in Dorchester County to 85% in Cecil and Howard counties. At that time, 84% of city teachers were vaccinated.

City officials have “processed more than 400 requests for medical and religious exemptions combined. Some individuals requested both,” according to Gwendolyn Chambers, a spokeswoman for the school system. Those employees who have received exemptions are included in the 90%.

She said the review process is guided by the American Disabilities Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and case law.

When asked to define what medical issues and religious views would exempt an individual from having to get the vaccine, Chambers declined to give examples. She said there is no “predetermined list of religions or medical issues. Each request is reviewed on its own merits.”

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“The district’s position remains that vaccination is one of the best ways to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Chambers said. “We take it very seriously.” Vaccine hesitancy in the broader community continues to be a problem and school leaders hope that once employees feel better informed about the vaccine they will agree to get the shot. “Our hope is to retain as many as possible,” she said.

The failure to enforce the mandate comes after the school system notified employees six weeks in advance of the Nov. 1 deadline that they had to be vaccinated or apply for an exemption. In late October, school officials said employees had six weeks from when they are notified of a denial to get an exemption to become fully vaccinated. After that, the school system said it would take progressive disciplinary measures until the person got the vaccine or was terminated.

The city schools was the first area system to put a vaccine mandate into effect. Other area school systems — including Harford, Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties — have said teachers had to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Teachers and students in city schools are already tested once a week under one of the most extensive testing protocols in the state.

“We are continuing to work with those who have not complied. We have progressive discipline measures in place and the specifics of those measures are between City Schools and our employees,” Chambers said.

The city schools also haven’t shared a deadline or steps that could be taken against teachers with the Baltimore Teachers Union.

“Given the extraordinary shortfalls in staffing for substitute teachers and other positions, we are concerned that haphazard implementation would leave schools dangerously understaffed despite having the highest vaccination rates in the state, as well as a far more rigorous testing program than exists in any other large Maryland district,” said Zachary Taylor, a union leader.

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