Salem schools drop Covid vaccine requirement for employees, volunteers

Salem schools will no longer require employees or volunteers to be vaccinated against Covid as state health officials declared an end to the pandemic public health emergency.

The change will take effect June 17 at the end of the school year. That’s when state regulations requiring vaccinations for educators, volunteers and other school employees will be lifted.

Oregon Health Authority leaders announced the changes last week.

Previous rules required those working in schools to either be vaccinated or have a medical or religious exemption on file with the district. Going forward, the district will make sure job applicants are aware of the change, but recruiters haven’t tracked how often people dropped out of the hiring process because of the vaccination requirement.

“Anecdotally, we believe it has been a barrier to hiring some staff, but is not something we can quantify as this is not information we collected,” district spokesman Aaron Harada said.

Administrators in the Salem-Keizer School District said the vaccination requirement has been one factor deterring some people from volunteering, but not a major one.

At Candalaria Elementary School in south Salem, principal Jason Gundlach said 79 people have volunteered in classrooms this year in a school of about 300 students.

The school has an active PTA with a long history of volunteerism for events like a book fair, auction, movie nights, as well as regular work in classrooms and as crossing guards.

Gundlach said the number of volunteers now is lower than before the pandemic, but he attributed that more to people falling out of routines when school buildings shut down during the pandemic and barred volunteers temporarily.

The vaccination mandate “has been a variable but … it’s less of an impact than people just being out of the routine,” Gundlach said.

As of May, the district has 4,600 approved volunteers with a current background check and proof of vaccination or an exemption on file, said Debbie Joa, who works on volunteer background checks at the district level. She said her team receives a few calls per month from someone who wants to volunteer but can’t provide proof of vaccination or qualify for an exemption.

Harada said district leaders plan to reach out to former school volunteers in light of the requirements changing, though the details of that effort are still being worked out.

The district has about 16,000 people in its volunteer system, he said, some of whom may have signed up to help with a single event years ago. Harada said they hope to re-engage some volunteers now that the public health emergency has been lifted.

At Candalaria, Gundlach said volunteers include both parents of students and neighborhood residents who just want to help out at their local school. He tries to interview prospective volunteers to see where their skills would best fit with the school’s needs.

“Strong parent-teacher partnership is critical to sense of belonging,” he said. “We would welcome anybody that passes a background check to come and help out with what’s happening in schools.”Interested volunteers can fill out the district’s form online.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.