ST. LOUIS — Some St. Louis Public Schools staff said they are now allowed to return to their jobs with the district after they were placed on unpaid administrative leave when the district’s vaccine mandate went into effect in October.
One former SLPS teacher, who requested to remain anonymous, said her initial religious exemption was denied in October. About three months later, on Jan. 13, she received a letter from the district, approving her exemption and allowing her to return to work on Jan. 20, 2022, without receiving the COVID vaccine.
The letter said: “With your exemption approved, you are now able to return to work from administrative leave.” The letter then cites a policy and informs the teacher that she will need to complete COVID testing twice a week.
SLPS Director of Communications George Sells confirmed the district was taking another look at religious exemptions.
“As we have said since the beginning of this process, we never wanted to see anyone leave,” Sells said in an email to FOX 2. “We are now in the process of taking a new look at the religious exemptions that have been requested in light of changes in quarantine and isolation policies by the CDC and City Department of Health.”
“Things have changed in terms of health department guidelines and how we approach this whole thing and that helped us reach an accommodation and so our attorney met with us and went to the district and decided we could reach accommodation for most folks following the 1905 supreme court case Jacobson vs. Massachusetts which allows two possible exemptions, one is religious the other is medical,” Byron Clemens, the spokesperson for AFT St. Louis Local 420, the teacher’s union, said.
“I felt that it was kind of unfair to force something and then be like, ‘never mind you don’t have to do it anymore, or for those people who went ahead and got it just to keep their jobs, but may not have wanted it,” one former SLPS teacher said. “Essentially a lot of us got bullied.”
She said she will not be returning because she has another teaching job in a different district, where she does not have to be vaccinated, but tests for COVID-19 once a week.
The letter references “revised guidance regarding COVID-related quarantine protocols” issued by the St. Louis City Department of Health on January 7.
The letter also said the reasons for the change are as follows:
- The “guidance reduced the number of quarantine days required for unvaccinated individuals who were close contacts to a positive COVID case.”
- “The Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued revised quarantine guidance.”
- “The Food and Drug Administration approved COVID booster vaccinations for students twelve (12) years old or older.”
- “The beginning of the new year also saw the prevalence of a new COVID variant with an increased rate of transmission among both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.”
In this letter, the district said “in light of these changed circumstances, the Human Resources Department completed another review of your previous request for a religious exemption from the requirements of St. Louis Public School District COVID-19 Employee Vaccination Policy.”
The district said they could not confirm how many staff members recently received exemptions after the district changed its guidance. Sells said this does not have anything to do with the district being short-staffed.
“We are so proud of our members for just getting through this,” Clemens said. “It’s been so hard; our folks are heroes.”