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School employees won't get vaccine payments after all

Hand sanitizer, wipes, and surgical masks rest on a desk in a fourth-grade classroom, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley, Wash. The school has had some students in classrooms for in-person learning since September of 2020, but other students who attend the school are still learning remotely. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited the school Tuesday to observe classrooms and take part in a discussion with teachers and administrators about plans to further open in-person learning in Washington in the future. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/AP
Hand sanitizer, wipes, and surgical masks rest on a desk in a classroom.

An attempt to give vaccinated school staff $200 and an extra week off was shot down in a 3-3 vote by the School Board on Tuesday. The district won’t be signing contracts with six unions representing district employees for the vaccine incentives.

School Board chair Diana Greene said Tuesday that 10 teachers have died from COVID in just the past three months. She tried to persuade the board to support the proposal, saying it could be a potential antidote to the high health care costs to the district of teachers getting COVID.

“Between paid leave last year and paying for medical expenses, we have spent over $10 million dollars,” Green said. “This is a way to lower our medical health care costs.”

The $200 checks for vaccinated employees would have cost the district about $2.4 million. School Board members Charlotte Joyce, Lori Hershey and Cindy Pearson weren’t swayed, saying the money could be better spent.

The proposed payouts would have been in addition to a $200 benefit added to vaccinated employees' health plans in early September. The proposed payments would cost the district an estimated $2.4 million. District officials say they expect federal and state COVID relief funding to cover the cost.

Ronnie Burris is the business manager for a local public employees union and signed contracts on behalf of more than 200 district staffers. He believes the proposed benefits would have been good for workers but unlikely to sway the unvaccinated.

“I don't think that it's going to change anyone's mind one way or the other,” Burris said. “Either they're going to get it and have already gotten it, or they're not going to get it and the $200 is not a big deal to them.”

He thinks his union members are supporting the proposal because it gives an incentive for the vaccine, instead of mandating it. President Biden’s vaccine mandate doesn’t apply to state and local government employees in Florida.

“I haven't heard [anything] negative about it because it's clearly up to them,” Burris said.

Studies show that vaccine incentive programs have had limited impact on vaccine uptake. An economist at the University of North Florida, Chung-Ping Loh, said because the COVID vaccine is already free, cash incentives won't necessarily be a tipping point for people who haven't gotten the shot yet.

"Financial incentives will help, but you have to remember the COVID vaccine has been available to everyone at no cost," Loh said. "School employees have a lot on their plate, and many have been kept busy after work or family responsibilities, so sometimes not being able to find the time to do it can be a major barrier."

Almost 3% of Duval County’s 12,000-person staff has caught COVID so far this school year, according to district data.

School Board member Pearson called herself “pro-vaccine” but told the board she couldn’t support one clause in the proposal that stated the district plans to eventually mandate the COVID vaccine.

“I would approve otherwise the incentive, but I cannot go along with ‘eventually mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all employees,’” Pearson said. “Even though I think vaccinations are a good idea.”

The superintendent said the district would not make a vaccine mandate unless it were imposed by the federal or state government.

In the past, School Board chair Elizabeth Anderson would have cast a tie breaking vote, but because of Duval County’s growth, the district no longer falls under a law allowing for tie-breaking votes, according to the district’s attorney, Rita Mairs.

“Because of the recent census data a 3-3 vote will fail,” Mairs told council.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the board tentatively planned a special meeting next Monday to reassess the district’s threshold for lifting its emergency mask mandate.

Under the current policy, the district won’t lift the mandate until there are fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Superintendent Greene said that based on recent trends, Duval County is unlikely to reach that metric until the first week of November.