Several members of Durham County’s Board of Education expressed deep concerns this month during a work session when they learned that only 74 percent of the school system’s public school employees had been fully vaccinated for the coronavirus.

Two months ago, school board members mandated that all staff be fully vaccinated by October 31. But by early November, a little over a quarter of DPS employees are not in compliance.

That’s what Alvera Lesane, the DPS assistant superintendent of human resources, told the board members during a November 4 vaccine update that indicated 1,425 of the school system’s 5,454 employees remained unvaccinated.

Lesane noted that 102 DPS employees had received religious or medical exemptions.

DPS spokesman William “Chip” Sudderth on Thursday told the INDY that the number of vaccinated DPS employees “is still hovering around 74 percent.”

As the INDY previously reported, school board members convened a special meeting in early September to weigh the pros and cons of requiring mandatory COVID vaccine shots for teachers and staff.

During that meeting, the board members opted to develop a plan of action based on surveys that would indicate what percentage of school employees have already received the vaccine.

The number of unvaccinated DPS employees includes 500 who have not responded to a survey by DPS officials with human resources inquiring about their vaccine status.

That’s worrisome for some of the board members. DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said if the collected data found that only 50 percent of DPS employees were vaccinated, that would be more worrisome.

“If we have 70 percent of our staff vaccinated, which we don’t know yet, it may be just some incentive to be able to get another 10 percent to give it 80 percent,” Mubenga said near the end of the meeting. “If we have about 50 percent vaccinated, that’s alarming.”

But board member Matthew Sears said 74 percent is cause for concern.

“I think 1,425 employees is way too high for our district,” Sears said. “That’s less than a third, but more than a quarter. We have got to do better.”

Sears, after pointing out that teachers can’t teach without being certified and bus drivers must have licenses, said vaccinations are now a requirement to work with Durham Public Schools.

Adding that some have “fallen into the trap of, ‘this is a personal choice,’” Sears said, “This is not a choice issue. We removed that issue and if we want to be challenged legally, we can do that.”

“Folks will get vaccinated when it’s explained to them that it’s not a choice,” Sears added later.

Board member Natalie Beyer shared similar frustrations while gently chiding unvaccinated DPS employees.

“This board set a mandate and this is the expectation for our employees,” she said. “We are charged in an amazing way with caring for children. Some of them are as young as four. Some of them are medically fragile and unable to be vaccinated. And some of our co-workers and colleagues cannot be vaccinated for immunocompromised reasons. This is the expectation for 2021 for this board. This is not a new vaccine. This is not experimental. This is to save and protect yourself and your family, and your work with Durham Public Schools.”

Meanwhile, board chair Bettina Umstead, pointed to vaccine hesitancy and encouraged people who are still on the fence to talk with someone.

“I know educators are talking to each other. I know parents are talking to each other. That is so, so important,” Umstead said. “The numbers are going down, but the virus is still here. It’s still very real and it’s still taking lives everyday.”

Lesane told the board that DPS “is still on track to ensure that all employees are fully vaccinated.”

Lesane also pointed to a marked increase in vaccinations among the school system’s Black and Latinx employees. A little over 66 percent of Black employees are now fully vaccinated, compared to 46 percent in September, while more than 62 percent of Latinx employees are fully vaccinated, compared to 56 percent two months before.

Mubenga said there has been progress, and he wants to give people more time to comply with the vaccination mandate.

“Let’s give it another month to nudge folk a little, and hope that we’re in a better place a month from now,” he said.

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