Duanesburg school board will not weigh in on potential COVID-19 vaccine mandate

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DUANESBURG — The Duanesburg Board of Education will not weigh in on a potential statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students after a pair of proposals failed to gain traction this past week that would have seen the district survey parents on the vaccination mandate and send a letter expressing the school’s stance on the issue.

In a pair of 5-2 votes, school board members voted against surveying parents about the potential vaccine mandate and sending a letter to state lawmakers, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, outlining the district’s views on the proposal. Members argued that the actions fell outside the purview of the school board and would stir up political animosity around an issue the school board ultimately had no control over.

“This body is for overseeing that school, that’s it,” said school board member Francis Spor. “If we were to do a survey, we’d be reaching into an area where we have no jurisdiction and no control over, and that’d be disingenuous. It’d be dishonest to our community.”

State legislation to add the COVID-19 immunizations against COVID-19 as a condition to attend schools was introduced in 2021 and is again being floated this year.

If approved, the law would only take effect after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves the vaccine for school-aged children and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee on immunization practices approves the recommendation.

Currently, the FDA has fully approved two COVID-19 vaccine regimens, but only for certain age groups. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for those 12 and older, and the vaccine developed by Moderna has been approved for those 18 and older. Other vaccines  developed by Jansen and Novavax are available under an emergency use authorization for those 18 and above and 12 and older, respectively, according to the FDA.

Board members Avis Sanchez and Sarah Gwiazdowski were in favor of the district conducting the survey and sending the letter, arguing that the school board has an obligation to hear from parents in the district and ensure that their voices are heard.

Gwiazdowski said that she has heard from families asking to weigh in on the proposed state legislation.

“I think parents really feel strongly about this topic and therefore are reaching out to anyone and everyone that can help them with this plight,” she said. “And that is what I believe the community reached out to us to do, and I think hearing them is part of our job.”

Sanchez, meanwhile, said surveying parents and then sending a letter to state lawmakers expressing their concerns would help protect the district in the future. She floated a scenario about the school’s population dropping by half because of the mandate — an impact she said would ultimately bankrupt the school.

“If we don’t look to the future using this survey to find out where parents stand and where the community stands, where’s the school going to be in the future?” Sanchez said. “It’s not going to exist anymore.”

State-mandated COVID policies in schools have been a contentious issue, particularly in Duanesburg, where last year’s school board elections included a slate of candidates opposed to state COVID protocols like masking and vaccine mandates.

New York already requires students to receive a number of vaccines before attending schools, including those for polio, measles, mumps, rubella, among other deadly communicable diseases.

School board President Shayne Mitchell said the topic of vaccines has become politically divisive in recent years and said distributing the survey and sending a letter expressing the district’s views on the proposed law could create unnecessary animosity for the district.

The school board has no control over public health issues being debated on the state level, he said, and anyone concerned about the potential enactment of a COVID-19 vaccine should contact their local state legislators.

“In addition to a survey not being helpful, it could mislead some people into thinking that the school has control over this issue, and it could even stir up bad feelings within the school community,” Mitchell said. “Why take these risks when there is nothing to be gained?”

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] or by calling 518-395-3120.

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