What every MNEA member needs to know about the COVID-19 vaccine

With the new availability of vaccines, it seems like we can finally begin to see an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has gripped our country for more than a year. That ray of hope, however, raises a number of questions about how those vaccines will affect public schools.

Who can receive the vaccine and when?

Missouri has rolled out a vaccine schedule, and you can review it at www.covidvaccine.mo.gov. In mid-March, Missouri was working through Phase 1B, which includes all K-12 employees.

It is possible that you may be able to receive the vaccine outside of this schedule by signing up with city or county health authorities. Make sure you are checking your applicable health authorities.

One group of individuals who will not be receiving the vaccine is students. As of mid-March, the FDA had only approved the vaccines for use on adults, individuals 16 and over for the PfizerBioNTech vaccine and individuals 18 and over for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. It’s possible we may see some other authorization in the near future, but with the struggle our nation already faces in vaccinating adults, it may not be likely.

Can my employer require I get the vaccine?

Currently, there is not a prohibition on public school employers requiring that staff be vaccinated. Under the American’s with Disabilities Act, employers are able to take some steps to ensure that employees do not pose a “direct threat to the health and safety of individuals in the workplace,” and it is likely that an individual with COVID-19 would meet that standard. Therefore, districts potentially could require vaccination to avoid creating a safety issue. These considerations would not apply to districts or colleges that might remain fully virtual for the rest of the 2020-2021 school year, as there would be no threat of transmission.

Are there reasons to refuse a vaccination?

Yes. There are at least two reasons that individuals can offer if they are concerned about receiving the vaccine. Individuals who have previously had negative reactions to a vaccine or have a health condition that would make it dangerous to get a vaccine (such as pregnancy or being immunocompromised). The individual in these circumstances must be provided with a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act if he or she requests the accommodation. A request for accommodation like this would trigger the full interactive accommodation process in an attempt to find an alternative—so that the individual can complete the essential functions of his or her job.

Separately, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects an employee’s “sincerely held religious beliefs, observances and practices.” Therefore, individuals who are part of a religion that has a sincere belief opposing vaccination would be able to object to such a requirement. This protection does not extend to personal or ethical views that are not part of a religious belief, so just the fact that an individual has personal concerns would not be sufficient. As with the ADA accommodation, employers would be required to attempt to find an employment structure that both protects the safety of students and staff and honors the religious belief of the employee.

If I get the vaccine, who pays for it?

The Centers for Disease Control has recommended the COVID-19 vaccine for routine use, so it falls under the preventive services provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Therefore, any individuals who have ACA compliant insurance, which should be nearly all public school employees who get insurance through their employers, would be able to get the vaccine at absolutely no cost. Additionally, thanks to some changes created by the various stimulus bills, this coverage extends even to out-of-network providers. That means individuals on ACA plans should be able to get the vaccine anywhere at no cost.

Similarly, individuals on Medicare or Medicaid or who receive insurance through the Children’s Health Insurance Program can get the vaccine at no cost. Individuals with no insurance at all should also be able to receive the vaccine at no cost—thanks to money set aside to support healthcare providers in some of the stimulus bills.

Individuals who have plans that don’t comply with the ACA, known as “grandfathered plans,” may have some costs. You should be able to contact your benefits administrator to determine if your insurance is ACA compliant and, if not, what costs there might be for the COVID-19 vaccine. Also, individuals who are on short-term plans or limited-benefit plans may also have costs, although these types of insurance are very rare.

If you need help dealing with a vaccination issue or navigating the accommodation process, please reach out to your local UniServ director or contact MNEA’s team of specialists directly at coronavirus@mnea.org.

by Vincenzo Iuppa, Associate general counsel
Something Better, spring 2021