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Williams: The Richmond School Board let vaccine holdouts off the hook. We need to stop indulging virus enablers.
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RPS vaccine policy

Williams: The Richmond School Board let vaccine holdouts off the hook. We need to stop indulging virus enablers.

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When was the last time a child you know caught diphtheria?

You don’t hear much about diphtheria and other diseases anymore in the U.S, because vaccines have largely controlled or eradicated them. In Virginia, children are required to be vaccinated for an array of contagious diseases, including polio, Hepatitis A and B, chickenpox, measles and mumps, as a condition of attending public or private K-12 schools, nursery schools and child care centers.

Someday, we hope, COVID-19 will go the way of diphtheria. We’re not there yet. In August, Richmond Public Schools approved a policy requiring its staff to show proof of vaccination by Oct. 1.

The mandate — one of the first of its type by a Virginia school district — appeared to work: The percentage of staff with a vaccination or approved exemption rose from 37% to 92%, school officials say.

But Monday, the School Board defanged the policy it had approved by an 8-1 vote. It forbade Superintendent Jason Kamras from docking pay or firing teachers who failed to comply if they agreed to weekly COVID testing by the school district. The measure was introduced by Vice Chair Jonathan Young, the lone dissenter in August.

In this instance, we are demanding more of children than the adults who teach them.

Despite studies showing the unvaccinated at much greater risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, many Americans appear to love their personal freedom more than life itself. Patrick Henry set the tone when he said: “Give me liberty or give me death.” (A powerful line, ironic for a slaveholder.) But a public health crisis that has killed nearly 760,000 people in the U.S. — and 5.8 million worldwide — requires extraordinary measures and sacrifice to combat.

Once the board approved the vaccine policy in August, you might have assumed it was all-in on its punitive teeth. But a majority lacked the stomach for “progressive discipline” against the relatively few holdouts.

“As a board member, we are tasked to do everything in our power to keep students and staff safe while we do the business of educating our students,” said board member Kenya Gibson, who supported the policy in August but was among the 6-3 board majority that neutered it Monday.

“I’m thankful that we have achieved high rates of vaccination as a district. The mandate was the right call. At the same time, I cannot in good conscience agree to take wages and threaten termination, particularly when we are so short of staff and our teachers are spread so thin.”

The policy allowed for exemptions for medical or religious reasons. And yet, there were holdouts. As has too often been the case during this pandemic, the skeptical, the misinformed, the partisan or the selfish got to flout the rules.

Framing vaccination as an “individual choice” defies logic during the midst of a pandemic caused by a highly contagious virus. Being a teacher is about as public-facing as jobs get.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine safe for children as young as 5. But we’re a ways off from COVID-19 vaccines taking their place among vaccines required for K-12 students in Virginia. Given our politics, who knows if that will ever happen?

In the meantime, we know children can get sick and die from the virus.

And then, there’s a matter of fairness.

“I’ve heard from several teachers since who were frustrated because they had a great deal of anxiety but got the shot,” Kamras said. “And they feel like the rug was pulled out from under them.”

RPS has seen 410 positive COVID-19 cases: 352 students, 49 staff and nine community partners, said Sarah Abubaker, a spokesperson for the district. “Nearly all of these cases are infections that occurred outside of RPS. Hence our push to vaccinate the community.”

The school district plans to roll out its weekly testing of unvaccinated staff sometime after Thanksgiving, she said. But, “weekly testing really isn’t a preventive measure. It’s more of a diagnostic tool.”

Meanwhile, the virus laughs at our politics and premature victory dances.

“I am concerned with winter coming, we’re seeing rising rates in some of the Midwestern states and the Northeastern states,” Kamras said. “So I think this is exactly the wrong time to take the foot off the gas on our protocols.”

The bulk of that vaccine list for largely contained diseases was compiled during a less-politicized age. Today, we’re rowing in different directions, heading nowhere fast.

“Schools at their best are the epitome of the community coming together,” Kamras said. “So I think schools should be the exemplar of community caring about one another.”

In RPS, too many adults chose to act selfishly, defiantly or childishly. And their behavior was rewarded.

That’s a lousy lesson for the students.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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