The Portland Public Schools (PPS) board members agreed to postpone voting on a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students 12 and older for up to six months at their board meeting Tuesday night. The members cited Multnomah County’s high vaccination rates among school-age children and the distress a vaccine requirement may cause families who do not trust government-run public health programs as reasons to delay a possible mandate.
“With the philosophical and religious exemptions [allowed for the COVID vaccine], I don’t think we’d see a huge bump in vaccines by creating the mandate,” board member Eilidh Lowery said. “It would create a lot of distress in our community without getting us the benefit of lowering [the] amount of time children are missing [school] for quarantine and other things.”
The PPS school board was poised to vote on a vaccine mandate at their previous October 26 meeting, where they were confronted with anti-mandate and anti-vaccine adults who refused to comply with Oregon’s indoor masking rules, forcing the in-person meeting to be suspended and reconvene virtually. While the board had the votes of four members it needed to pass a vaccine mandate that night, they agreed to delay the vote to gather more information on how a mandate would be implemented and what would happen to students who did not comply.
On November 12, PPS staff announced their recommendation that the board “delay taking action on a vaccine requirement for at least six months.” In a letter detailing the recommendation, PPS chief of staff Jonathan Garcia noted the school board had started seriously considering a vaccine mandate in September when COVID cases were at a peak due to the contagious Delta variant rapidly spreading throughout unvaccinated communities. Now, cases in Oregon have been steadily declining since late August and new modeling from the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) predicts cases will continue to fall throughout the winter months.
Garcia also noted that most PPS students ages 12 to 17 are already vaccinated. According to Oregon Health Authority data, 78.8 percent of kids 12 to 17 in Multnomah County have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of November 16. One in five Multnomah County children ages 5 to 11 have received at least one dose of the vaccine since Pfizer’s youth vaccine was approved two weeks ago.
“Our belief is that our community is showing up and so we want to see how many folks will get vaccinated [without a mandate],” Garcia said at the virtual PPS board meeting Tuesday, citing advice from Multnomah County Health Department leaders that immunization requirements should be seen as a last resort after public health agencies have exhausted all other avenues of encouraging vaccination.
Board member Herman Greene, who was one of two board members in clear opposition of a vaccine mandate during previous discussions, echoed the staff’s recommendation of using a vaccine requirement as a last resort.
“With this pause, we’re giving families time to make a decision,” Greene said. At the previous meeting, Greene spoke in defense of Black families who were skeptical of government vaccinations because of the US’s history of medical racism.
Board members who were very supportive of passing a vaccine mandate with minimal exemptions, like Lowery and Andrew Scott, agreed with PPS staff’s recommendation to delay the vaccine mandate decision despite their continued concerns with the status of the pandemic. While COVID deaths have decreased recently, Scott stressed that unvaccinated people are still dying from COVID.
“I think this was a really good conversation and I’m not embarrassed at all that my view has changed somewhat as we've gone through,” Scott said. “All these emails I get from people saying COVID is not a big deal… that is just flat out wrong. Whether a mandate for our children is the best way to handle that or not I don’t know, I think that’s an open conversation. But, we need to continue doing every single thing we can to mitigate those deaths.”
Board members unanimously agreed to pause the mandate decision, but several members wanted to be able to revisit the topic as needed, not on a strict six-month timeline.
“I don’t know if six months is the right time, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next month,” board chair Michelle DePass said. “I would like us to be flexible and responsive to the virus.”
The board members did not set a timeline for when they would revisit the topic.
Delaying the decision to create a vaccine mandate was against the board’s student representative Jackson Weinberg’s recommendation. Weinberg is responsible for bringing student concerns and perspectives to the board.
Weinberg encouraged the board members to continue forward with a vaccine mandate after hearing strong support from PPS students. In a survey of over 1800 middle and high school students throughout the district, 89 percent of the students supported a vaccine mandate. Most of the students who took the survey were fully vaccinated.
After board members agreed to delay voting on a vaccine requirement, Weinberg stressed that there is a difference between students being safe and feeling safe attending school in person.
“While we all think students are safe going to school right now, there are students who don’t feel safe going to school and we need to take that seriously,” Weinberg said. “If we’re not going forward with this vaccine mandate, then we need to go forward with other mitigation strategies.”
One of those mitigation efforts could be asymptomatic testing for students—a program that was supposed to be available district-wide at the beginning of the school year but has been delayed due to capacity issues at OHSU. It’s unclear if more pressure from the school board would impact the timeline of expanding COVID testing in schools.
During the meeting, several board members refuted the claim that the board was rushed in its decision to create a vaccine mandate, specifically referencing a recent opinion piece from the Oregonian’s editorial board. Board members Gary Hollands and Lowery stressed that the board has been having discussions around student safety and COVID precautions for the past 19 months of the pandemic, which included discussing vaccination rates.
“This is a big deal,” Lowery said. “Every time we talk about this, someone says we are going to have blood on our hands for something that we do. But I think all of us are really invested in [asking] how do we protect children and how do we keep kids in a robust and joyful academic experience as much as possible.”
To continue to encourage vaccinations, the district is hosting vaccine clinics at eight different schools, as well as accumulating and developing immunization education materials to distribute to families who are unsure about vaccination.
“From what I know, people are going to get vaccines when they have access and they have information that they trust about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines,” said board member Julia Brim-Edwards. “I think the district is on its way to both providing access by removing barriers and providing information for families that aren’t sure.”