(Updated at 8:15pm to reflect a subsequent executive order signed Friday by the governor which stated that state hospital and long-term care employees do not have the option of electing weekly testing rather than vaccination. )
Gov. Ned Lamont’s order requiring school workers and state employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 included medical and religious exemptions. But the order also included a less-publicized option: workers can just refuse the vaccine and consent to testing.
The Department of Education clarified the issue late last month for local school boards in a four-page document designed to answer questions about the requirement. Covered workers — including teachers, custodians, bus drivers and others — could seek exemptions to the state vaccine requirement and opt for weekly testing. Or they could just opt for weekly testing.
“In other words, covered workers need not have a medical or religious exemption in order to avail themselves of the weekly testing option,” the Education Department guidance read.
Currently, state employees are also able to refuse vaccination in favor of weekly testing, according to the governor’s chief spokesman, Max Reiss. But that may change as the administration continues to negotiate the requirement with the coalition of labor unions representing state workers, he said.
Lamont issued another executive order later Friday, which stated that employees of state hospitals and long-term care facilities do not have the option of electing weekly testing rather than vaccination.
On Friday Reiss said there was “definitely teeth in [the vaccination requirement].”
“Testing is not convenient. The most convenient thing somebody can do is get vaccinated,” he said. “For the individual it’s more a question of ‘Do I want to be tested and be swabbed up my nose once a week?’”
In some cases it is unclear who will pay for the weekly COVID testing of employees who opt against vaccination either by exemption or refusal. The governor’s administration said in August that state employees who choose not to be vaccinated may be required to pay out-of-pocket but that requirement could also be subject to negotiations with the unions, they said.
Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel at Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said that school employees who are not vaccinated may also be on the hook for the testing costs.
“There’s no requirement that the school district actually offer that testing. The district may choose to do so but they’re under no obligation,” McCarthy said.
It is unclear how many school district employees throughout the state have refused the vaccine. A survey released Friday by the Connecticut Education Association suggested that 89% of the nearly 1,000 teachers questioned had reported being fully vaccinated. But teachers make up just a portion of school district workers.
“Districts believe that the vast majority of their educator workforce chose to get vaccinated as soon as that was an option in the spring,” McCarthy said. “I think a bigger concern is around other related workers such as bus drivers, where we already know there’s a shortage.”
School bus operators have been warning of a staffing crisis and last month an executive of one Connecticut busing company worried the vaccine requirement would complicate recruitment and retention efforts.
The requirement is set to go into effect on Sept. 27. Like other pandemic precautions including a requirement that masks be worn in schools, it is tied to the governor’s emergency declarations, which are currently scheduled to expire three days later. Although the legislature is expected to meet later this month to consider extending the orders, Lamont has yet to request an extension and no date for a legislative session has been announced.
Although a surge in COVID cases driven by the more-transmissible delta variant has shown signs of receding in Connecticut, public health officials are watching closely as students head back to classrooms this month.
Already, there have been outbreaks. Barely a week after the first day of school, Hebron Superintendent Thomas J. Baird wrote to parents Wednesday to announce that Gilead Hill School would shift to remote learning until next week as a “high number” of cases have surfaced in students and staff.
“Some families have asked how they can help. Please get vaccinated if you are not already vaccinated. When vaccination is available for your child, please get them vaccinated,” Baird wrote.