Dozens of unvaccinated San Diego school employees to be fired

San Diego Unified has sent termination notices to 73 workers, out of its roughly 15,000 employees, for failing to comply with the school district’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Of the 73 workers, 12 are credentialed employees, such as teachers, principals or counselors, and 61 are non-credentialed — or classified — employees, such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers or custodians.

The district set Jan. 24 as the day it would enforce consequences for those who fail to get fully vaccinated or an approved exemption.

The San Diego Unified School Board decided in late September to require full COVID vaccination — meaning two doses — of all employees and students age 16 and older by Dec. 20.

Employees who refused to comply would be terminated, the board decided, and students who didn’t comply would be forced to learn from home. The district’s plan allowed students to seek medical exemptions and allowed staff to seek medical and personal belief exemptions.

The district’s student COVID vaccination mandate was struck down by a judge last month who said that school districts are not allowed to require additional vaccines for attendance beyond what the state already requires. The district has said it will appeal that ruling.

Meanwhile, the district’s staff mandate was not affected by the court ruling.

At the time the district approved the mandate in September, 76% of district employees were fully vaccinated.

Now, more than 99% of employees are either fully vaccinated or have received an exemption to the mandate, according to district data.

More than 840 employees have been granted medical or personal belief exemptions, said San Diego Unified School Board Trustee Richard Barrera.

As of Friday, the district did not answer questions from the Union-Tribune about what employees with exemptions have to do regarding COVID safety in lieu of getting vaccinated.

Barrera said the district’s high percentage of compliant employees means that the staff vaccine mandate has been a success.

“It proves that vaccine mandates work and are necessary,” Barrera said. “We will be at 100% of our staff that is either fully vaccinated or has received an approved accommodation, and with very little loss of staff. What it shows is that staff who had been reluctant to get the vaccine are getting it as a result of the mandate.”

Still, San Diego Unified may end up terminating dozens of employees at a time when the district and many others around the country can’t find enough people to adequately staff schools because of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and suspected exposures.

Schools are resorting to hiring substitute teachers, putting students in study halls, combining classes and replacing instruction with independent work as the surge is causing abnormally high staff and student absences.

Despite the severe staffing shortage, Barrera said he does not anticipate employee terminations will hurt the district’s ability to staff schools because they will affect a relatively small number of staff. He said the district will cover for the fired employees the way it has been working to cover staff absences already: using substitutes and central office staff and hiring more people.

“At this point, we believe that we can fully cover for any staffing shortages that might result from the termination of those employees,” Barrera said.

San Diego Unified isn’t the only major area employer staring down a vaccination deadline.

The city of San Diego earlier this month sent 86 advanced notices of termination to city employees, including 19 workers in the Public Utilities Department, 15 in the Police Department, and 13 in Parks and Recreation. That was a far cry from the 900 or so employees who were sent option letters in early December warning them they could be fired if they did not comply with the city’s mandate.

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