Minnesota’s biggest school districts don’t know how many teachers are vaccinated

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As children prepare to head back to the classroom in a matter of weeks, the biggest public school districts in Minnesota are not tracking which teachers have received the COVID-19 vaccine, despite growing concerns about safety in the classroom.

The latest surge in COVID-19 cases around the country has pushed a growing number of public school districts — from California and Denver to New York City — to require teachers to show proof that they’ve been vaccinated, or face frequent testing.

So far, no district in Minnesota has followed that lead, raising questions about how many unvaccinated teachers will be walking into classrooms full of young students not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission confirmed back in May that employers can not only ask their employees if they have been vaccinated, but they can also require it.

The state’s largest teachers union, Education Minnesota, echoed that guidance in a memo on vaccines published on its website last month.

“Based on this guidance, it is likely the case that schools may legally ask staff whether or not they are vaccinated,” the document reads.

Despite those guidelines, 5 INVESTIGATES has learned that none of the 20 biggest school districts in the state are currently asking teachers for their vaccination status.

Only three districts have a general idea of their vaccination rate within their schools, based on months-old voluntary surveys or clinics held on-site back in the spring.

When asked for their rationale for not tracking the vaccine status among staff, districts initially provided 5 INVESTIGATES with a variety of explanations, including some that are factually incorrect.

“We do not collect this information because it is private,” a spokesperson for Prior Lake schools said.

In Bloomington, a spokesperson said that “Vaccine data is protected by HIPPA (sic).” The person later walked back the claim.

While individual records must be kept confidential, federal guidelines, legal experts, and even the union that represents teachers all agree that public schools, as employers, can ask teachers if they’ve been vaccinated.

“You can’t hide behind HIPAA,” said Dr. Tony Kinkel, head of the state Board of Administrators. “I think maybe what they should have told you is that they don’t know how much of the information they can share.”

Kinkel says this new strain of coronavirus that is now surging across the country likely caught school districts off guard at a time when they thought the pandemic was coming to an end.

“When you’re on this side as a decision-maker, there’s just so many things they’re grappling with that I just think they’re not even there yet,” he said.

As a former administrator and state senator himself, Kinkel believes districts were reluctant to start asking about vaccination status because of the controversial issues it would lead to, including what to do with a staff member who refuses the vaccine.

“I think once (the mask mandate) is settled, there will be a pretty rapid progression towards, ‘Now what do we do about this vaccination?’” he said.

Nationally, there’s been a clear shift from teachers unions, including from the country’s two largest teachers unions that announced last week it is now throwing its support behind a vaccine mandate as hospitals continue to fill up during this latest wave of cases.

Last week, Education Minnesota released a statement on vaccine mandates by sidestepping the issue, saying that it believes mandates “must be locally negotiated rather than imposed from above.”

“To be clear, our state union does not oppose vaccines for COVID-19,” the statement read, stopping short of expressing support for mandates. In the days since, the organization has put out additional statements, encouraging every teacher to get vaccinated.

But the calls for a mandate are growing louder. In St. Paul, Peter Hendricks, a parent of two who attend St. Paul Public Schools, recently sent a letter to the school board urging them to mandate teachers get vaccinated, or face routine testing.

“For me, it’s important because there are a number of children, school kids, that cannot get the vaccine because of their age,” he said.

A spokesperson for the district said it is considering a mandate along with other mitigation steps.

Last week, the federal government’s leading expert on COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he believes vaccines should be mandatory for all school teachers.

Fauci said in an interview with MSNBC, "I’m going to upset some people on this, but I think we should."