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Following a major meeting disruption, a majority of the board signals support for a coronavirus vaccine requirement.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Middle school students enter classes during the first day back in September. The Portland Public Schools board is slated to vote Nov. 12 on whether to require students to have a COVID-19 vaccine.Nothing went as expected.

A Portland Public Schools board meeting Tuesday, Oct. 26, which included discussion of a possible vaccine mandate for students, abruptly ended shortly after it started after a large group attending in-person refused to wear masks.

"I need to see 100% compliance with the mask mandate, please, or I will adjourn," PPS Board Chair Michelle DePass warned those in attendance. Immediately afterward, she announced the meeting would be suspended and moved to a virtual location.

"We can't put everyone at risk," she announced, to shouting from the crowd. Oregon has had an indoor mask mandate in effect since August.

The 6 p.m. meeting was paused until 7:15 p.m., as board members shuffled to other rooms at the school district headquarters and a crowd lingered in the board meeting room, unmasked.

The disruption was among a growing number of instances across the United States in which school board meetings have become unruly, largely due to COVID-19 protocols. In fact, on Oct. 4, the U.S. Attorney General directed the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI to start meeting with state and local law enforcement agencies to address growing violence and threats against school board members, school leaders and teachers. The directive came after a letter from the National School Boards Association to President Joe Biden, requesting help. "America's public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat,"the letter stated.

It wasn't the only organized action over a proposed vaccine mandate for students.

Earlier Tuesday, students at Grant High School walked out of class during the final 15 minutes of the day, to signal support for a student vaccine mandate.

Some students said they feel unsafe at school, where it's near impossible to keep a safe distance from peers. As of Oct. 22, 81% of adults in Multnomah County have been vaccinated and 62.6% of children and teens age 12 to 17 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Hours after the initial disruption at the Portland district's headquarters, board members shared thoughts on a coronavirus vaccine requirement.

Approval of a vaccine mandate for students is likely, with the majority of the PPS board in favor, but some cautioned the district still has work to do, urging more outreach to non-white and non-English speaking families.

"I'm curious what our strategy is to bring families along if they're hesitant," DePass said, echoing concerns from fellow board member Julia Brim-Edwards, who asked what the district is doing to remove barriers and assess what the barriers to vaccination are. Brim-Edwards said she's in favor of a mandate, as long as a vaccine has full FDA approval for children.

The discussion followed a series of public listening sessions hosted by the district the week prior. The board had initially planned to vote on the mandate on Nov. 2. It now plans to vote on Nov. 16.

In order to pass, the board needs four affirmative votes to approve a mandate. Elected leaders also need to decide whether to allow for exemptions, if they approve a mandate.

So where does each board member stand?

DePass and board member Eilidh Lowery both said they're in favor of a vaccine requirement, with no room for religious or philosophical exemption. Lowery recalled a recent health panel discussion where Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County's health officer, noted there are no major religions that are fundamentally opposed to vaccines.

PHOTO COURTESY: PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS - Michelle DePassDePass noted that historically, Oregon is one of the least religious states, yet has seen a high number of requests for religious exemptions to state and federal vaccine mandates.

Board members Amy Kohnstamm and Andrew Scott also support a student COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

"I think the question about whether we can or should require children to get vaccines is actually a settled question," Scott said. "Because, you don't get to come to school if your child is unvaccinated, and that requirement drives a whole bunch of vaccinations."

Scott addressed skepticism over vaccine safety head-on.

"None of us are public health experts," Scott said. "The FDA and the CDC, along with a whole bunch of other organizations, have said this vaccine is safe, is absolutely safe for kids. … I will tell you I'm an institutionalist. I think we need to trust the institutions that actually have the authority and responsibility for making these decisions and I get a little troubled by people who second-guess that over just, 'oh, I don't know if it's safe.' Vaccines are what's going to end this pandemic."

Board members Herman Greene and Gary Hollands are the outliers.

Greene has voiced staunch disapproval of the proposal, noting parents who've threatened to remove their kids from school if a COVID-19 vaccine mandate goes into effect.

"How many kids being pulled from school is too many?" Greene asked, noting his discomfort with "forcing 12-year-olds to get the vaccine."

Greene noted he is vaccinated and believes vaccines are helpful in reducing the spread of the virus, but later insisted the board should respect the personal reasons driving vaccine hesitancy among parents.

Hollands said he's "torn" on whether a mandate is a good idea, suggesting it may not reduce overall case counts within schools or make much of a difference.

During the same meeting, the school board approved Friday, Nov. 12, as a staff development day, which will see all PPS campuses closed.


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