K-12 school staff must be vaccinated; community colleges hold out
Staff at all K-12 schools in Oregon soon will need to be vaccinated, but Portland Community College hasn't announced a vaccine requirement for its staff and students this year.
All Portland Public Schools staff will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of August or face regular testing, the district announced Wednesday, Aug. 18.
The following day, Thursday, Aug. 19, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered all K-12 school employees and volunteers to provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 18 or six weeks after full approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration, whichever is later.
Previously, Portland's school district leadership said they were "encouraging" all staff, along with eligible students, to get vaccinated. The new requirement was agreed to by both the Portland Association of Teachers and the Portland Federation of School Professionals.
The vaccine requirements were announced amid record-breaking COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state, weeks before Portland K-12 students are slated to go back to school full-time in-person. On the same day as the governor's announcement, Oregon saw 2,971 new confirmed or presumed COVID-19 cases across the state, and 19 new deaths. The new cases include 225 in Multnomah County, where Portland Public Schools is.
"Vaccination is our most powerful tool to get our students back to in-person learning, and restore the interaction and personal connection that is such a crucial part of learning," said Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers. "While the vast majority of PAT members are already vaccinated, this mandate is an important step toward ensuring that everyone in our school communities is vaccinated, if they are able to be."
Those who are unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine due to health reasons will be exempt from the requirement.
While Gov. Kate Brown mandated masks be worn at all K-12 school settings, she initially stopped short of mandating vaccines for school employees, leaving the decision up to local districts. By Aug. 19, she had changed her stance, citing a surge in the more contagious delta variant and a hospital capacity crisis.
"Our kids need to be in the classroom full-time, five days a week, and we have to do everything we can to make that happen," Gov. Brown said in an announcement. "While we are still learning about the delta variant, we know from previous experience that when schools open with safety measures in place, the risk of transmission is low. That's why I've directed the Oregon Health Authority to issue a rule requiring all teachers, educators, support staff, and volunteers in K-12 schools to be fully vaccinated."
Most PPS students go back to school Sept. 1, with kindergartners going back Sept. 8.
On the same day she announced a vaccine requirement for schools, the governor also issued a mandate that health care workers be vaccinated, with no alternative option for regular testing as previously announced.
No change at PCC
At the community college level, the landscape looks different.
Portland Community College announced in June that it wouldn't require vaccines for its students or staff this fall, but Dan Saltzman, who serves on the college's board of directors, had hoped to reverse that. The board on Aug. 19 opted not to take immediate action and instead revisit the issue in September, after hearing concerns that implementing a mandate would cause a drop in student enrollment.
"You're going to have some students who are reluctant, who will get disenrolled," PCC President Mark Mitsui told the college's board of directors. "There are certain populations in our student community that are more likely to be unsure and are more likely to be unlikely to be vaccinated."
The PCC board also heard from Irene Konev, who said minority communities like Portland's Russian and Slavic residents are fearful of the vaccine.
"Every day I'm getting texts from people who are reluctant to vaccinate, telling me not to vaccinate," Konev said. "Our vaccination information is not reaching everyone at the same level, as we'd like."
Community colleges across Oregon have opted not to require proof of vaccination for on-campus classes, with the exception of Lane Community College in Eugene.
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