Duval School Board approves employee vaccine incentives and emergency COVID-19 leave

Florida Times-Union | By Emily Bloch | October 19, 2021

Thanks to softened contractual language about vaccine mandates among school district employees, Duval County Public Schools teachers and other staff members will finally receive emergency COVID-19 leave time and vaccine bonuses. 

The news follows a special board meeting that took place Tuesday morning, where School Board members discussed modified memorandum of understanding language for its unionized staff and faculty members including educators, maintenance team workers, school police officers and more. 

The language agreed upon — which passed unanimously— includes emergency paid COVID-19 leave for all full-time employees: up to 24 hours for any worker who is unable to work because of contracting COVID-19 and an additional 40 hours for vaccinated employees who catch the coronavirus or those who have a religious or medical exemption. All employees will also receive up to 32 hours of COVID-19 testing leave regardless of their vaccination status. The new hours are retroactive from the start of the school year this summer. 

The memorandums’ language covers district employees in the Duval Teachers United, Fraternal Order of Police, The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Laborers’ International Union of North America and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

A previous version of the memorandums of understanding failed in a deadlocked vote earlier this month. School Board members Lori Hershey, Charlotte Joyce and Cindy Pearson, who voted against the original agreements voiced concerns with language about potential vaccine mandates for employees at the time.

The original documents’ language said: “the district desires to encourage all employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and eventually mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all employees, except those with an approved accommodation.”

According to Superintendent Diana Greene, if the memorandums were approved, she would have had the jurisdiction to implement a vaccine mandate between now and June 30, 2022, without an additional board vote. 

That language has been stripped from the new memorandums of understanding, instead only mentioning that the district “desires to encourage” all employees to be vaccinated. 

Paying teachers to get vaccinated

Board members Joyce and Hershey also previously expressed concern over rewarding vaccinated employees with cash incentives, though the practice has been approved and in effect at other school districts across the state including Broward, Miami-Dade and Orange County Schools. Locally, the University of North Florida announced an incentive program for students who are fully vaccinated. 

Under the now-approved agreement, unionized school district employees who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 10 or who have an approved exemption will receive a $200 incentive. 

On social media discussions about the vote, reactions were mixed. Some community members disagreed with incentivizing the vaccine — others disagreed with allowing employees with religious or health exemptions to get the incentive. 

A national piece from EdWeek about teacher vaccine incentives discussed the ethical dilemma that comes with the new perk. A health policy professor said the incentives could come across as insensitive to some people unable or unwilling to get the vaccine. A proponent of incentives argued the tactic could get students closer to a “normal school year” faster. 

Duval Schools estimates a financial impact of up to $2.4 million for the $200 incentives based on the number of participating employees. According to documents supplied at the board meeting, the costs would be recouped from federal or state COVID-19 funding. 

Greene said the incentives will help cushion the district’s health care costs, which have racked up over the last two years because of employees who required COVID-19 treatment. She said that the more employees get vaccinated, the more insulated the district, which is self-insured, could be from excessive health insurance rates. 

Also included in the memorandums of understanding is the mention of a standing employee mask mandate for the entirety of the school year, though Greene has the authority to rescind or re-implement the requirement and make exceptions for employees who need accommodations. 

“All employees will be required to wear a mask for the 2021-2022 school year,” the documents say. “Employees who are not in compliance with district mask requirements will be subject to progressive discipline, including possible termination.”

Greene said the recommendation will help prevent district fatalities — she added that Duval Schools has lost at least 10 employees to COVID-19 to date. 

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