Greenwich Schools set vaccine mandate for employees, despite concerns from board members

Photo of Ken Borsuk
Students are dismissed after the first day of the 2021-2022 school year at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn. Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021.

Students are dismissed after the first day of the 2021-2022 school year at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn. Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021.

File / Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

GREENWICH — The Board of Education has unanimously approved requiring school employees to be vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests — but not without conflict.

Under the district’s state-mandated policy, employees who do not agree to either vaccination or weekly tests for the virus will have five days of unpaid leave in which to adhere to the policy.

The first four days will come with a reminder of the policy; if any conflict is not resolved by the fifth day, the employee will be terminated.

Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones said each district across the state was deciding its COVID-19 policy. In Greenwich, employees will have the option, in lieu of proof of vaccination, to provide a negative COVID-19 test each Monday.

Board member Karen Kowalski said she was concerned the policy could create a teacher shortage if people quit their jobs. Jones said the new rules are for all district employees.

“We could have bus drivers. We could have custodial issues,” Jones said. “Right now, we’re not seeing that based on the level of submissions that have gone into our nurses. We think (compliance is) going to be very high.”

Jones said guidance from the state continues to change, noting that this week there was an emergency meeting at the state level to make sure state-approved testing sites would give out free tests to school employees.

Board Vice Chair Kathleen Stowe said the policy was meant to be “a little bit more nimble” as “executive orders keep changing” so the board would not have to keep revisiting it. The policy has the approval of the town’s legal department.

The policy was passed unanimously by the seven board members in attendance even though there were concerns expressed by Kowalski, Peter Sherr and Joe Kelly. Kowalski said she “reluctantly” supported the measure because a policy had to be in place for the district by Monday by state order.

“It’s difficult to swallow the fact that someone is telling you something to do, but I understand what we’re being told and being advised and that’s why I can get behind this,” Kowalski said. “This is the law and we must do this and we must comply. I get that. ... This whole thing makes me very, very uncomfortable. Obviously it’s an executive order, but that doesn’t make it right.”

Kowalski and Sherr both said they hoped when the state’s executive orders do change that the board changes the policy, too.

Sherr noted there seemed, so far, to be acceptance from the labor unions representing school employees.

“I’ve heard no objections from the unions so I don’t worry about our employees because they’re represented by very powerful, well-funded national unions with big lobbying organizations,” Sherr said. “If they’re not complaining about it, I assume it means that all of the rank and file of the unions are OK with this and their leadership is representing it.”

The meeting included an often contentious public hearing where more than a dozen members of the Greenwich Patriots group spoke out against the continued state-required mask mandate in schools. Tempers flared several times during the public hearing with board Chair Peter Bernstein repeatedly telling speakers to wear masks and warning them that continued disruptions would result in their removal.

Ultimately no one had to be removed and all of the speakers who signed up to speak at the meeting were able to.

One of the speakers, Mariana Begonja, a current state employee and district parent, spoke emotionally and claimed the board was “intimidating workers” through the vaccine mandate for employees.

A former employee of the district, Begonja began to cry during her comments when discussing what would happen if pay was withheld for non-compliance and the weekly testing for COVID-19 that employees would have to undergo.

“You’re not firing us, you’re just not paying us until we comply,” Begonja said. “You’re making sure this is hard financially with weekly testing. Proceeding with any aspects of this mandate is unlawful and inhumane.”

Both Jones at Thursday’s meeting and Bernstein on Friday said there are state-approved testing sites where people can get COVID-19 tests for free.

Jones said word about where to find free tests has been sent out to the district’s teachers.

“As was also explained by the superintendent, pay would only be withheld as part of a progressive discipline process in line with existing contractual provisions for employees not in compliance with the state vaccination or testing requirement,” Bernstein said.

Concerns were also echoed by speaker Kara Philben, who said the board was “tearing the Greenwich community apart with these mandates.”

Sitting school board members did not respond to any of the comments made by speakers at the public hearing.

But Laura Kostin, one of two Democrats running for two spots on the board in November, said she spoke as an individual and a parent during the hearing, defending the mask mandate while criticizing the Greenwich Patriots.

“If you don’t want to wear a mask or take a vaccine, you have that freedom, but we are a nation of laws even if you don’t like them,” Kostin said. “Rest assured Patriots, you have been heard. The cold shoulder you’ve received over and over isn’t your imagination. But like a jilted lover who will not take no for an answer, you think by repeating the same song on a mix tape that the theme you keep repeating is suddenly less creepy.”

On Friday, Bernstein stated, “We continue to hear from parents on all sides of these issues and are still following state and federal guidance and mandates to keep students and staff safe in our buildings so that learning can continue. These are the same mitigation strategies that helped us open our doors last year when other districts couldn’t.”

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com