Education Health

Around 70% of Jefferson County Public Schools’ (JCPS) more than 18,000 employees have signed up to be vaccinated against the coronavirus during the “Phase 1b” wave of Kentucky vaccinations, according to the district. However, more than 5,400 employees either declined the vaccine or did not respond to the vaccination survey.

Employees at K-12 schools are one of the first groups in line for the limited supply of coronavirus vaccines, after long-term care facility residents and frontline healthcare personnel. Gov. Andy Beshear has said Phase 1b, which includes K-12 staff, people over 70 and first responders, could begin as early as late January. The governor has said he believes vaccinating school staff should be a priority so that schools can reopen to in-person classes. 

Following a state directive, JCPS sent out a survey in December to all employees, including contractors and substitute teachers, asking whether they plan to receive the vaccine. Legal staff for the Kentucky Department of Education say under federal law, schools and districts cannot require employees to take the vaccine. But district and state leaders are highly encouraging vaccination.

According to JCPS, 12,884 employees signed up to receive the vaccine, 1,900 declined and more than 3,500 did not complete the survey, which the district interprets as declining the vaccine.

“We inundated employees with daily emails, texts and other communication to respond to the survey by Dec. 30 with the clear understanding that if they didn’t respond, they would be counted as declining vaccination through JCPS,” JCPS spokesman Mark Hebert wrote to WFPL News in an email.

Under a Dec. 18 executive order from Beshear, school districts do not have to accommodate employees’ requests for remote work if they refuse the vaccine, unless they have a health condition that the CDC or FDA says would prevent them from taking it. There are few instances in which the CDC recommends against taking the vaccine, but they include an allergy to any ingredient in the COVID vaccine. 

The CDC does note that for pregnant and breastfeeding women, there are “few data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, including mRNA vaccines,” but that “based on current knowledge” mRNA vaccines are “unlikely to pose a risk.” The agency stops short of making a recommendation one way or the other, advising instead that pregnant women talk to their physician and make a personal decision.

“When making a decision, pregnant people and their healthcare providers should consider the level of COVID-19 community transmission, the patient’s personal risk of contracting COVID-19, the risks of COVID-19 to the patient and potential risks to the fetus, the efficacy of the vaccine, the side effects of the vaccine and the lack of data about the vaccine during pregnancy,” guidance reads. 

It is not clear whether JCPS will allow pregnant or breastfeeding women to work remotely if they refuse the vaccine. Nor is it clear how the potential 70% immunization rate will impact plans to reopen.

Asked about these questions, Hebert said vaccinations will be one of the main topics during the Jefferson County Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.