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Montgomery and Prince George’s county school employees must get coronavirus vaccine or tests, officials say

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Montgomery and Prince George’s county schools will require teachers and other employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to weekly testing for it, officials said Friday.

The districts, the two largest in Maryland, are the latest in a growing wave of Washington-area counties and school systems that are choosing to implement vaccination mandates. The decisions also come as President Biden is urging employers nationwide to adopt vaccination requirements.

“This is an important step toward shielding our family members, our friends, our neighbors and the students and families we serve,” Monica Goldson, chief executive of Prince George’s County Schools, said in a video announcing the vaccination rule.

Goldson said records show at least 12,000 employees “are already PGCPS Proud to be protected.” Other employees must show proof of vaccination by Aug. 27, or submit to weekly on-site coronavirus tests.

Montgomery County Public Schools debuted its vaccination requirement as part of a “2021-2022 Reopening Guide.” The 25-page document also urges eligible students to get vaccinated and says that more details about vaccinations and testing will be shared with teachers and staff closer to the start of the school year.

Montgomery spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said that roughly 17,000 school staff had received a vaccine dose as of June, out of 24,000 total — a rate of slightly more than 70 percent.

Like most school systems in the Washington region, Montgomery and Prince George’s are preparing to offer five days a week of in-person learning to the vast majority of students, after more than a year in which many learned online-only.

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The staff vaccination announcements come shortly after Biden said that all federal employees and on-site contractors have to get inoculated or participate in repeated coronavirus testing, an order meant to serve as a model for employers nationwide. Almost 60 percent of Americans are at least partially vaccinated, according to The Washington Post’s tracker.

The decisions in Montgomery and Prince George’s also follow similar policies being pursued by officials in the nation’s capital and in nearby Northern Virginia.

In D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced this week that all city employees and contractors — a category that includes public-school teachers — must be fully vaccinated by Sept. 19 or submit to weekly coronavirus tests. But the mayor said the order will not apply to teachers and staff at charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated institutions that educate nearly 50 percent of public school children in the city.

Instead, Bowser wrote a letter to the more than 65 charter network leaders asking that they adopt her policy for the staff. Throughout the pandemic, Bowser has stressed that she views charter schools as independent, and she has not compelled them to open or close.

By Thursday, all but one charter network had signed onto a letter saying they would adopt the vaccination policy.

“While each local education agency is independent, we have committed to requiring our staff to get vaccinated or comply with regular COVID-19 testing,” the letter from charter schools read.

The lone charter school that did not sign the letter — Goodwill Excel Center, an adult education center — said it was not against Bowser’s policy, but that its board and staff needed to discuss the proposal before adopting it.

Meanwhile in Arlington, an affluent and liberal-leaning county across the Potomac River from D.C., officials said Thursday that all county and public school employees must get a coronavirus vaccine dose or undergo weekly testing. The order takes effect Aug. 30.

Arlington is the first school district in Northern Virginia to implement a vaccination mandate, although officials in both Alexandria and Fairfax County said this week they are considering adopting one.

Across the country in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) also announced a vaccination or test requirement for teachers this week, becoming the first state governor to do so.

The increasing popularity of vaccination mandates for school employees is opening a new front in the ongoing national war over educational issues, a battle that spans cultural, academic and public health concerns. Many parents and politicians, especially in rural and Republican areas, are already upset about mask mandates in schools, which they view as an infringement on their constitutional rights and on parental choice. Some are likely to see vaccination mandates as an even greater affront to personal freedom.

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On Friday, Montgomery County Schools also shared details about its safety protocols for the upcoming school year. While the system is preparing to educate students in person full-time, the reopening guide warns that officials are nonetheless developing a plan for hybrid instruction in which students would attend school in-person on some days and virtually on others. That plan will take effect only if “the state government orders reduced capacity in school buildings” due to the ongoing pandemic, the document says.

And the guide mentions the possibility of a return to online-only schooling — although it notes that Montgomery “will not close school buildings and move to fully virtual instruction unless ordered to do so by state government officials.”

Amid these concessions, interim superintendent Monifa McKnight sought to boost confidence in Montgomery’s return-to-school strategy in a one-page letter to families and employees that accompanied the reopening document.

“Our schools will open in the fall with critical precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” McKnight wrote. “We are squarely focused on helping students transition seamlessly back into their learning environments.”

Some Montgomery parents reacted with joy to the news of the school system’s vaccination mandate. Adam Zimmerman, a father from Rockville, said he hopes the school system will eventually require vaccination for students as well, once the shots become available for those under 12.

“When it comes to the health of our kids and teachers, we can’t leave anything on the table,” he said. “MCPS’ decision . . . will save lives and provide significant protection for our entire community.”