Portland School Board narrowly defeats staff vaccination mandate

Lyseth Elementary School deals with lingering impact from COVID-19 outbreak

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Whether Portland Public Schools employees will be required to be vaccinated against coronavirus this year remains uncertain, even after the School Board last week narrowly rejected what would have been Maine’s first school vaccine mandate.

Board members defeated the proposal – which would have required vaccination of all school employees by Nov. 1 – by a 5-4 vote that came after Portland High School was closed for a day last week in response to two positive COVID-19 cases and two days before nine positive cases were discovered at Lyseth Elementary School.

Portland Public Schools logoBoard Chair Emily Figdor and members Roberto Rodriguez, Micky Bondo, Jeff Irish, and Yusuf Yusuf voted against the mandate with members Sarah Thompson, Anna Trevorrow, Aura Russell-Bedder, and Adam Burk in the minority.

A key reason members cited for voting against the mandate was its potential for driving away School Department employees at a time when the schools are already short-staffed.

The vaccination rate for staff, however, is high: According to department data, 92 percent of Portland Public Schools staff are vaccinated. 

According to a Sept. 10 press release from school spokesperson Tess Nacelewicz, positive COVID-19 cases were detected last week at five other city schools in addition to Portland High School.

Lyseth Elementary School was closed Monday, Sept. 13, because of an outbreak that appeared connected to a neighborhood child care facility, according to the School Department. As a result, there were 38 close contacts at the school who had to quarantine.

Most of the school was scheduled to reopen Tuesday, with the exception of eight classrooms that will remain closed, possibly through Wednesday, while testing determines if there was exposure in those classes.

The school is informing families directly regarding the status of their children’s classrooms and the remote learning plans for classes that need to quarantine. Meals will continue to be available on site for families wishing to pick them up during the closure, the School Department said Monday.

“Those in the PPS community who are eligible but not yet vaccinated – staff, students, families, and other community members – are urged to get their shot,” the department said.

Despite the board’s vote, uncertainty continues around a staff vaccination requirement because of President Joe Biden’s recent expanded vaccine mandate.

Nacelewicz said via email Sept. 13 that Maine school districts have not yet been told what the impact may be from the president’s order, which compels all businesses with more than 100 employees to require vaccinations or implement weekly testing. 

Biden also called on governors to require vaccinations for school teachers and staff.