As COVID metrics worsen, are vaccine mandates on the horizon? North Carolina teachers weigh in

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to increase in North Carolina, as the more transmissible Delta variant spreads.

The worsening metrics come as students and educators prepare to return to school, with some year-round students already doing so.

Over the past few days, two key national figures have voiced their support for a vaccine mandate for educators, in an effort to try and make sure schools can remain open for in-person instruction.

On Sunday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, voiced her support for a vaccine mandate for educators; Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of NIAID and Chief Medical Advisor to the President, shared similar remarks.

"When you're talking about local mandates, mandates for schools, for teachers, for universities, for colleges, I'm sorry, I mean I know people must like to have their individual freedom and not be told to do something. But, I think we're in such a serious situation now that under certain circumstances mandates should be done," Fauci said during an interview on MSNBC.

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In North Carolina, the North Carolina Association of Educators said they do not have a position on vaccine mandates at this point.

"We are encouraging educators and the general public to get the vaccine as we know it is critical to make sure that we are keeping the safety of our schools and our communities in mind. We have continued to provide vaccine education because we understand that there is vaccine hesitancy," said President Tamika Walker Kelly, who added they are engaging with their membership and following the metrics.

Kelly added the union does support other safety measures, such as mask mandates, which several Triangle districts have implemented.

"We support masking in schools. We do support testing, routine testing especially for those people who are unvaccinated. And those measures right now we believe can continue to allow us to have in-person school safely," said Kelly.

Other steps they'd like to see implemented include increased ventilation, social distancing, and policies around activities such as lunch.

"We are particularly mindful of the safety considerations and know that we are still in a global pandemic, and so we have to be extra cautious of how we gather in those spaces. But we do want to be in those spaces with each other because the best learning happens when we are in classrooms with one another and we can see that learning happening together," said Kelly.

Conversely, Carolina Teachers Alliance, Inc., a much smaller association formed four months ago, does not support vaccine mandates for educators. In a statement, its president and founder Amy Marshall noted no COVID-19 vaccine is approved by the FDA at this time (the vaccine has received emergency use authorization by the FDA), writing in part, "No vaccine should be required of school staff or children until that state's legislature adds it to the list of required school vaccines."

The group also opposes mask mandates in schools, instead believing they should be optional.

NCDHHS told ABC11 "state law gives the NC Commission for Public Health authority, under certain circumstances, around child vaccinations, but not to mandate vaccinations for teachers or school staff."

They continue to encourage vaccinations, adding that "more than 94% of recent North Carolina cases are in people who are not fully vaccinated."

The issue extends from K-12 classes to colleges and universities. In the Triangle, Shaw University is requiring students be vaccinated, and Duke is requiring vaccinations for students, staff, and faculty. Both are private universities, and thus have more flexibility in implementing such policies.

However, there are no vaccination requirements for students or staff at public universities, a move that is facing some pushback in the UNC System. Last week, the UNC Faculty Executive Committee met for an emergency meeting to discuss COVID-19 safety protocols. In the meeting, they passed a resolution asking the UNC System to give the power to the chancellor and provost to require proof of vaccinations from employees and students.

"As you know, Michigan, Minnesota, California state universities, they have all done that. Why can't we? I would like to believe, and we know that Chapel Hill leads in some of these decisions. But I'm sorry to see that we haven't had a vaccine mandate," said Dr. Deb Aikat, an associate professor in the Hussman School of Journalism at UNC, and member of the UNC Faculty Executive Committee.

Orange County, which has the highest vaccination rate in the state, saw its biggest uptick in cases last August, when students returned to the campus for the beginning of the fall semester. After outbreaks were reported, students were forced to leave campus.

Aikat is worried about the potential for outbreaks on campus interrupting course schedules.

"Once the semester starts, if you are asking students to leave campus, that is not a happy feeling," said Aikat, who said he has heard the university is taking steps to prevent student groups to hold large-scale events that could lead to an increase in cases.

Professors at the university are expected to teach courses in-person, despite no guarantees that everybody in their classroom or lecture hall will be vaccinated. Masks are required for everybody on-campus, and routine testing is necessary if an individual does not report they're vaccinated.

"I am just trying to be careful about it and sensitive to the health of our faculty because they are the ones who are on the frontlines. Our staff are on the frontlines. The housekeepers that are cleaning the bathrooms. And I'm afraid to say that a lot of our leaders are making decisions behind their desks," said Aikat.

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