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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

How employee vaccination mandates are playing out at Milwaukee schools

A COVID vaccination clinic at Milwaukee's South Division High School in April 2021.
Emily Files
A COVID vaccination clinic at Milwaukee's South Division High School in April 2021.

Nov. 1 was the deadline for Milwaukee Public Schools employees to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or request an exemption. Employees who don’t comply will be put on unpaid leave Nov. 15, according to the district.

Chief of Human Resources Adria Maddaleni said Tuesday that of about 12,000 full-time and part-time employees, 80% have submitted proof of vaccination and 8% have asked for religious or medical accommodations.

That means 12% have not yet complied with the mandate — risking unpaid leave.

"We have been communicating with the schools and departments, letting them know the numbers and the expectations, and having them think internally about preparations – like how can you do some coverage if the eventuality happens that you’re going to have a certain amount of staff out of the building?" Maddeleni said.

If hundreds of employees are put on unpaid leave Nov. 15, it will increase challenges for already short-staffed schools. Maddaleni said HR is trying to prepare for the potential gaps.

"We have worked with our temp agencies — notified them we’re going to need all the support we can with regards to filling any potential absences as a result," Maddaleni said. "Otherwise, we are always recruiting and we have kicked up our recruitment efforts."

Another question is how schools with vaccine mandates will handle religious accommodation requests. It seems to be a gray area for employers, since no major religion formally opposes vaccination.

>>Judging 'sincerely held' religious belief is tricky for employers mandating vaccines

The vast majority of the 934 accommodation requests received by MPS are for religious reasons: 92%

Maddaleni expects to approve most of them.

"We definitely are taking an approach where we’re taking people at their word and we basically are treating those people’s [requests] as their bona fide religious belief," Maddaleni said. "We will approve it and go from there."

Unvaccinated MPS employees with approved accommodations will need to get tested for COVID weekly.

Milwaukee Excellence charter school may also take a flexible approach when it comes to religious exemptions. Marketing and development associate Danielle Borja said the school is already short-handed and doesn’t want to lose staff. Milwaukee Excellence has given staff a deadline of Nov. 15 to submit proof of vaccination or an accommodation request.

"I’m not the person who is going to vet through all the exemptions, but from what I know about our organization, we’ll give that benefit of the doubt," Borja said. "Because we have really great-quality teachers, and it would be almost wrong for us to terminate them based off of religious belief."

Another charter school with a vaccination mandate, Rocketship Transformation Prep, is taking a more strict approach. Executive Director Brittany Kinser said her HR team did not approve any religious exemptions at their two Milwaukee schools.

Kinser explained why Rocketship decided to institute a vaccination requirement.

"We decided to mandate the vaccine because we knew it was really important to keep our schools open, and it was really hard the first couple months of school because we had about 20 staff members who had to quarantine due to COVID," Kinser said. "Operating a school with staff members out was very difficult."

Kinser and Assistant Principal Mia Harvey spent weeks talking one-on-one with vaccine hesitant employees.

"It was definitely not easy," said Harvey. "I had to make a couple rounds — just definitely circling back to, 'I listen to you, I feel you and value you.' And just like, 'Do you know how important it is for you to be here? Think about the kids that would miss you. Think about the kids that you built relationships with, think about how much they depend on you.'"

Kinser and Harvey say the conversations worked. Rocketship's north side school went from 50% of staff vaccinated in September to 100% vaccinated now. Two employees out of about 80 left due to the mandate.

Similar conversations are likely happening now at MPS schools, as the Nov. 15 deadline approaches, when noncompliant staff are to be put on unpaid leave.

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Emily does education reporting as well as general news editing at WUWM.
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