GILLETTE — Members of the public, including some teachers, came to tell the Campbell County School District’s board of trustees that they were not happy with the decision to offer district employees a $300 incentive for getting the COVID-19 vaccination.
Two weeks ago, the board voted to offer the incentive to all district employees who could show proof of being fully vaccinated (meaning two shots of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or one of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) by Dec. 1.
If employees show proof, they will receive the incentive pay in their January paychecks. Payments will be funded by the second round of Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CARES II), which President Donald Trump signed into law in December.
On Tuesday, Jennifer Farnes, a sixth grade teacher at Rawhide Elementary and the district’s teacher of the year in 2019-20, went before the board to express her dismay with the decision.
“My first point of contention is offering monetary compensation to staff should they get an injection that has not undergone comprehensive clinical trials and has yet to be subject to openly debated, uncensored scientific scrutiny,” Farnes told the board.
All vaccines in the United States must go through three phases of clinical trials to make sure they are safe and effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
“During the development of COVID-19 vaccines, phases overlapped to speed up the process, but all phases were completed,” the CDC said on its website.
“This incentive is an unethical form of coercion and it sets a terrifying precedent regarding informed consent and personal medical privacy rights,” Farnes said. “My concern is that, if this is the road we’re going down, where does it end and at what point do we say stop?”
The board, when it announced the policy, made clear that participation in the program is completely voluntary. It reiterated that point numerous times throughout Tuesday’s meeting.
Farnes’s second point of contention was that she considered the district’s decision to offer COVID-19 sick leave for the fully vaccinated who develop a breakthrough case to be discriminatory.
In the same meeting where the board authorized the vaccine incentive program, the board also voted to reinstate 10 days of COVID-19 sick leave for fully vaccinated teachers, meaning that if an employee chose to forego the vaccine and got sick with COVID-19, the days out of school would come out of the employee’s annual sick leave.
This policy, like the $300, would fall into the category of an incentive, where the district is rewarding those who take a desired step of collective action, but it does not punish those who choose otherwise.
The employees are not getting their sick leave reduced by refusing the vaccine; they’re simply foregoing an opportunity to receive more.
If the incentive measure weren't in place, unvaccinated employees would use personal sick days if they were out due COVID-19 or forced to quarantine. Their status remains unchanged by the policy, but Farnes said exclusion from a sick leave policy acted like a penalty to those who chose not to get vaccinated.
“It also creates an environment where people feel there’s preferential treatment and bias,” Farnes said.
As a result, she did not think incentive leave should be offered to any staff members. If it wasn’t going to be offered to all teachers, she argued that it shouldn’t be offered to any.
Scott Clem, pastor of Central Baptist Church, spoke out against the vaccine incentive program as well. He called it discriminatory toward those who didn’t want to get vaccinated.
“If I was an employee, I wouldn’t want to get tested,” Clem said. “If I was sick, I’d be coming to work. Why would I want to expose myself? Why would I want to kick the brunt of your deal? I wouldn’t. I’m sure there’s plenty of employees like that in the district, who are thinking, ‘Boy, this is a joke. So, we’ll go ahead and go to school sick. We won’t get tested. Maybe we have COVID, maybe we don’t.’ Is that going to spread the disease even further? Of course it will, but that’s the kind of environment, the kind of setup, that this kind of policy is creating. You should be aware of that.”
There were numerous other commenters who spoke out against the vaccination incentive.
There were many slippery slope arguments. One woman said, “What’s next? We parents don’t get to come into the school unless we’ve been vaccinated? And what about our children? And we can’t attend sporting events? Where does this end?”
The board made clear that none of those options were in place and have not been discussed by the district.
After the speakers had finished, some of the board members made general comments to those people at the meeting.
“Using incentives in our school district is not a new thing,” said trustee Lisa Durgin. “We’ve always incentivized for health. We do blood draws every year, we give reductions in premiums. We’ve done that for years, and it’s worked out really well to catch different types of diseases, ailments, what have you, in employees and really helped their lives. I don’t look at it as a penalty because it still is optional.”
“One of the reasons we’re going to encourage our staff to get the vaccine is because of this quarantine rule,” said trustee Ken Clouston. “We don’t want to run out of employees. We don’t want to not have enough teachers. If an employee is vaccinated and exposed, the way the rules are now, they can still work. If they’re not vaccinated and they’re exposed, they’re going to have to quarantine. We’re short on substitute teachers, and that’s one of the reasons that pay was increased because we’re trying to find more substitutes.”
“You’ll never like everything a board decides,” said chairwoman Anne Ochs. “And I wish that we could, because I’m a people-pleaser. I like everyone to be happy, but you won’t agree with every decision we make. But we will make those decisions, we will leave them in the hands of the teachers and the staff as to whether they get the vaccine and whether they want to wear masks. Those are personal decisions, and if you disagree with us, I’m sorry.”