UNION COUNTY — The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for educators Gov. Kate Brown issued Thursday, Aug. 19, due to spiking infection rates, has local educators expressing concern about their colleagues, speaking of the value of common sense and recounting the American Revolutionary War.
La Grande High School Principal Brett Baxter said he is concerned about members of his staff who cannot get vaccinated because of medical conditions or other reasons.
Baxter said some fear they will lose their jobs as a result, and at least one person has already discussed resigning. The principal, however, is telling such staff members to wait until the picture becomes clearer. He noted, for example, that it is not yet known who might be exempt from the vaccine mandate, which is a reason for many to stay put for now.
“Don’t do anything rash,” Baxter said he is telling his staff.
The principal emphasized that everything will be done to address the unique situations staff members may find themselves in.
“The reality is we will work with every individual situation,” he said. “We want everyone to have the opportunity to keep doing what we love to do.”
The principal said he wants to do everything he can to keep his staff intact.
“We do not want to lose anyone. If we do it will hurt our ability to help kids,” Baxter said.
History offers a lesson on vaccination issue
LHS social studies teacher John Lamoreau believes there might not be a need for the mandate if more people exercised fundamental precautions.
“I don’t like the mandate but I believe the reason we are seeing the mandate is a failure of people not practicing common sense during the pandemic, which has led to a spike in cases,” he said.
Lamoreau noted, for example, that he recently was in a La Grande store where he saw five people who were coughing and sniffling, which possibly could have been symptoms of COVID-19, but were not wearing masks.
Lamoreau, who contracted COVID-19 in late 2020 and has since been vaccinated for it, believes that having faculty and staff vaccinated will not only protect them but also students and families of students.
A history buff, Lamoreau sometimes steps back in time when discussing the vaccine controversy. He noted that George Washington faced a vaccination issue while serving as commander of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He said Washington was fighting a war not only with the British but also with smallpox, then a dreaded and rampant disease. Lamoreau said Washington knew smallpox could devastate his army so he ordered the inoculations of all his troops against smallpox.
“Obviously, it was an experimental strategy, but it worked. In no small measure the inoculation of his troops at that time helped our country win our independence,” Lamoreau said.
Support the vaccine, but not the mandate
Imbler School District Superintendent Doug Hislop, like Lamoreau, wishes that a mandate was not necessary.
“It ought to be a personal choice,” said Hislop, who was vaccinated earlier for COVID-19.
The Imbler superintendent believes that vaccinations should be optional for educators until the FDA gives the COVID-19 vaccines its full approval, which came on Monday, Aug. 23. The FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine for patients 16 and older, making it the first vaccine to go beyond emergency use status.
La Grande Middle School Principal Chris Wagner said he can understand why people support or oppose mandates like the one for vaccines.
“Everyone has a different reason for their convictions,” he said.
Wagner believes the vaccine mandate will be a good thing if it will help make it possible for more students to receive in-person instruction, which is why he is supporting it.
“I want to do whatever I can to help kids get educated in school buildings,” he said.
Wagner said though he would prefer that decisions regarding COVID-19 be made by communities, as they were in much of 2021 until now.
“I’m looking forward to having local control returned,” he said.
James Akers, a math teacher at La Grande High School, is a fan of the vaccine but not the requirement of taking it.
“I support the vaccine but not the vaccine mandate. I think it should be a personal choice,” said Akers, who is fully COVID-19 vaccinated.
Akers hopes that infection rates do not reach the point that students will again have to be taught online via the La Grade School District’s Comprehensive Distance Learning program as they were during portions of the 2020-21 academic year.
“Teaching math online was not fun,” he said.
Goal is in-person education
According to a Cove teacher who requested not to be named, staff around the school have anticipated this mandate. The teacher noted that the school staff is on board with doing what it can to ensure in-person learning for students. Cove conducted in-person classes last year and enforced mask mandates, which has made the transition into this school year a bit easier, according to Cove School District Superintendent Earl Pettit.
Grande Ronde Hospital officials held a virtual town hall on Aug. 18, the day before Brown’s new mandate, discussing the strain that the COVID-19 spike is having on staffing and capacity. Grande Ronde Hospital President Jeremy Davis noted that there are little to no ICU beds available in Eastern Oregon. La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza spoke at the meeting and reflected on how these recent numbers are impacting schools.
La Grande, along with other school districts, is doing what it can to ensure that students remain in school during this spike in the pandemic. Doctors and officials at the meeting recommended mask usage and talking to a health care professional about any doubts concerning the COVID-19 vaccine.
The vaccination requirement, which applies to all teachers and school staff members, will go into effect with a deadline of Oct. 18 for all teachers and staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.
The mandate comes at a time in which Union County is nearing 500 total positive cases throughout August, making it the highest of any month since the start of the pandemic.