Since announcing a school-mask mandate two weeks ago, Gov. Phil Murphy left little doubt that he would next mandate vaccinations for teachers and other school personnel.
With schools set to open within weeks — and Murphy returning from vacation — details of the vaccination initiative are starting to emerge. Murphy is expected to announce that all teachers and staff must be vaccinated or be subject to weekly COVID-19 testing.
Left open are a number of questions, including whether the governor will suggest a vaccination mandate for students — a sure-to-be highly contentious prospect.
Awaiting the word on exemptions
Since Murphy’s statement two weeks ago that his administration was developing a vaccination mandate for teachers and to stay tuned for details, questions have been raised. Would the administration allow exemptions, including for those willing to undergo regular testing? According to several people familiar with the plan, it appears that Murphy’s strategy would include the testing option, as he did with his vaccinations-or-testing scheme for health care workers.
California has already enacted a similar mandate, and it’s also the position of the country’s major teachers unions as well. (Washington State has required all teachers be vaccinated, without the testing option.)
Perhaps most importantly, it’s the position of New Jersey’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, a close ally of the governor’s.
“We believe that the combination of a vaccine-or-testing requirement is appropriate and responsible,” said Steve Baker, the NJEA’s communications director. “I’m referring specifically to something similar to the vaccine-or-testing requirement in the previous executive order affecting healthcare and some other sectors.”
Some of the details surely will have to be agreed on in each district, whether through formal collective bargaining or just a handshake.
Key questions include: Where would the testing take place and at whose expense? What are the privacy protections? Will the vaccination mandate apply to day care and private preschool providers? And what happens if a teacher refuses either option?
The superintendent of the School District of the Chathams went through some of these questions two months ago when he preemptively informed teachers that the district would require teachers be vaccinated or face regular testing.
Superintendent Michael LaSusa said there was no resistance from teachers or need to negotiate, as the district already had gone through an on-site testing program last spring and would do so again. He described a very collaborative relationship with his teachers union.
“It went over well, overall,” LaSusa said of the district’s requirement. “I had a number of emails and remarks from staff members that they thought that was an appropriate way to move forward. . . Probably 90% of the staff has been vaccinated, so most of them would not be impacted.”
He also remarked that teachers already face various vaccine requirements to be certified and hired. “It’s not like they haven’t faced health requirements before,” LaSusa said.
Of course, not all districts and unions get along so well, but there hasn’t been much hint of widespread resistance from teachers on either the expected mandate or the details in administering it.
“Reading the tea leaves, I don’t think there will be much pushback,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
“From everything I hear, it seems a vast majority (of teachers and staff) are vaccinated,” he said.
Student vaccination mandate?
It’s a potentially toxic topic, but at what point are mandates on student vaccinations to be broached as well?
Murphy hasn’t touched the issue — nor have many, if any, other governors. And without approved vaccinations for students younger than 12, it’s likely a moot point for now.
But state Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the influential chair of the Senate health committee, said he has not given up on the issue as the de facto leader in the Legislature’s efforts to expand student vaccination requirements, even before there was COVID-19.
“I support (COVID) vaccinations for all children and doing everything we can to make it available to them,” Vitale said in an interview Thursday. “As a condition for attending school, I support that as well.”
But Vitale’s previous efforts didn’t end well in late 2019 and early 2020, facing angry State House protest from hundreds of parents and advocates, and Vitale said he needed to be strategic in pressing forward.
A logistical hurdle is that the state Legislature won’t even be returning to work until after the November election. But when asked whether a special session of the 40-member Senate could be called before then, he said a political one exists as well.
“If I could get the 21 votes, I would do it in a heartbeat,” Vitale said of a bill’s prospects. “We’re not there yet.”