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Alexandria City Public Schools will require vaccination or testing for staffers

Ingrid Bynum, right, principal of Patrick Henry Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., leads fourth- and fifth-graders outdoors for recess.
Ingrid Bynum, right, principal of Patrick Henry Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., leads fourth- and fifth-graders outdoors for recess. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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The Alexandria City Public Schools board voted Thursday to require employees to receive the coronavirus vaccine or submit to regular testing this fall, making it the latest D.C.-area school system to adopt a vaccine mandate.

Board members voted unanimously in favor of the vaccine rule at a meeting called to address the issue. But the board reached no such consensus about the timeline for implementing the rule, which drew intense debate, split the board and led to several rounds of proposed revisions and heated exchanges.

At the end of the evening, it remained unclear when the school system will be able to start collecting employees’ vaccination information or testing unvaccinated staffers. Students are slated to head inside classrooms for the fall semester on Aug. 24.

Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. had recommended the vaccine requirement and asked for the vote. In arguing for the vaccine rule Thursday, he pointed to the spread of the highly contagious delta variant as well as the rising case count in Alexandria.

“Unfortunately, as we’re looking at our covid-19 data, we are seeing a spike not just here in the city of Alexandria but across the entire country,” he said. “And we have to respond.”

Like most schools in the D.C. area, Alexandria — which enrolls 16,000 — is planning to offer the vast majority of its students five days a week of in-person learning this fall. During school, children and employees at all grade levels will be required to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status.

Under the new guidelines, employees who refuse to be vaccinated or who refuse to disclose their vaccination status soon will have to undergo weekly testing for the virus.

But tension erupted Thursday over when exactly that testing should begin, as well as the school system’s timeline for collecting vaccine information.

Originally, Hutchings proposed asking employees to submit proof of vaccination by Sept. 7 and to start testing unvaccinated staff on Sept. 20, about a month after classes begin. He and his top staffers said the gap in time was needed so Alexandria could establish a proper testing system: procuring tests, training staff and developing a secure database to store employees’ health information.

But the month-long delay left many school board members feeling frustrated and anxious.

“Things could get out of hand before that time,” warned school board member Cindy M. Anderson.

“I don’t understand how it’s difficult to ask someone to scan a card and put it into a website,” said board member Christopher A. Suarez. “Getting everything in place … may not be possible next week [and] maybe the data isn’t going to be perfect. But I don’t understand how we can think that no data is okay.”

School board member Ramee A. Gentry argued thatit would be morally irresponsible to direct Hutchings to begin testing unvaccinated staff earlier than he and his staff said would be logistically possible. About half of the nine-member board sided with her.

Ultimately, after several hours of heated discussion, the board voted 5 to 4 to approve a proposal from Suarez that significantly accelerated the superintendent’s schedule. Under Suarez’s timeline, staff must submit proof of vaccination by Aug. 27 and testing of unvaccinated employees must begin Aug. 30.

Gentry proposed an amendment around 10 p.m., tacking on a sentence to Alexandria’s vaccine rule meant to render Suarez’s timeline more fungible, effectively allowing staff a way to get around it. Her sentence read, “The Superintendent is instructed to proceed with the dates outlined above and provide updates to the board should any adjustments be anticipated.”

The amendment passed unanimously close to 10:30 p.m.

It remains unclear exactly how or when the school division will collect employees’ vaccination information or test unvaccinated staffers in coming days. At one point in the evening, Hutchings had cautioned against accelerating his suggested timeline by reminding the school board that it was debating the method of collecting and handling employees’ personal health information.

“We cannot separate the fact that we are working with people — I mean, yes, they’re staff, but they’re people,” he said. “And I just think we have to be careful with the way that we are trying to go about doing this.”

Near the end of the evening, though, he sought to project optimism. Hutchings said he and his staff had always planned for Alexandria to have “in-house testing.” But if employees use outside vendors for coronavirus tests, he said, it may be possible to accelerate the testing timeline as board members had directed.

“I never said we couldn’t do this,” Hutchings said. “This just wasn’t the recommendation and the system and process we were working through.”

As of late August, almost all major school districts in the Washington region have chosen to require vaccination — or frequent testing — for their teachers and staffers. The flurry of decisions come amid national pressure, as President Biden has mandated vaccines or testing for federal workers and is asking employers nationwide to adopt similar vaccine rules.

The holdouts include Fairfax County Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools, two of the largest school systems in Virginia. A spokeswoman for Fairfax said Thursday that an announcement on the issue could come as soon as Friday; a spokesman for Loudoun did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

When testing of unvaccinated employees begins, it will consist of a rapid test provided by an as-yet unidentified third party, Alexandria school officials said Thursday. A representative for the Alexandria Health Department said that agency cannot offer the testing because it is focused on vaccination, case investigation and contact tracing efforts.

If any employee tests positive, the rapid test will be followed by a PCR test for confirmation, officials said.