Virginia teachers’ union backs vaccine or testing requirement; New law changes process for student mandate

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-A push to mandate coronavirus vaccines or require regular testing for Virginia’s educators gained momentum this week as the state’s largest teachers’ union backed the policy for the first time. 

A possible vaccine mandate for students is likely to take much longer. A new decision-making process just took effect last month and, unlike past immunization requirements, the Virginia General Assembly will not have a say. 

In an interview on Friday, Virginia Education Association President Dr. James Fedderman said the union, which represents more than 40,000 teachers and support professionals, is encouraging school districts to consider vaccine mandates or required weekly testing for staff. 

Fedderman’s comments are in line with the National Education Association, which shifted its stance in a statement on Thursday. 

Fedderman said about 90 percent of their membership nationwide is already fully vaccinated, though he acknowledged some are opposed to the idea of a mandate. 

“We’re hearing concerns from members who feel as though their rights are being violated,” Fedderman said. “We just want to ensure the health, safety and welfare of students and employees.” 

California recently became the first state to announce the adoption of this policy for all public and private schools statewide. 

So far, Gov. Ralph Northam is leaving it up to localities. 

Asked about this on Friday, Northam’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said in a statement, “Governor Northam is always considering a range of options to get Virginians vaccinated. K-12 school teachers and staff are employed by localities, as you know, but the Governor has been clear in encouraging local governments to issue their own vaccine requirements, like he did last week for executive branch employees.”

Localities like Richmond are already taking action. A vaccine mandate for staff is expected to be on the school board’s agenda on Aug. 16.

When it comes to a possible vaccine mandate for students in Virginia, that decision would be recommended by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and then adopted by the State Board of Health following a 60 day public comment period, according to Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington). 

Before COVID-19 was first detected in Virginia, Hope sponsored a bill to remove the General Assembly from the process of adding school vaccine requirements.

The bill was met with push back from dozens of parents who rallied at the State Capitol last year, including Chesterfield mother Kathleen Medaries. 

“The fact that the authority completely rests with an un-elected group of officials that has the opportunity to provide a notice period of 60 days but has no obligation to actual hear the information being provided during that period doesn’t seem wise and prudent and complete to me as a voter,” Medaries said.

Under the old system, Hope said the state hadn’t updated its requirements since 2008. Since the new law took effect July 1, he said four new vaccinations were added to the immunization schedule.

“The General Assembly members are not in any position to make these recommendations,” Hope said. “Even though we’ve changed the process, we’ve taken it out of politics and put it into the practitioners’ hands, what we did keep in place were the religious and medical exemptions.”

Virginia’s Deputy Commissioner of Population Health Dr. Laurie Forlano said that a possible vaccine mandate for students likely wouldn’t be recommended by the CDC until the FDA grants full approval to the shots. 

Forlano said, for those 16 and older, that could happen as early as September.

Forlano said the federal government generally considers revisions to its immunization recommendations in February. Under that timeline, she said a potential mandate for the COVID-19 vaccine may not be implemented until the 2022-2023 school year. 

“Often we would have a delayed implementation and that’s generally for logistical reasons because changing an immunization rule in the middle of a school year can be a bit chaotic,” Forlano said.