First published in the Oct. 23 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The deadline for Burbank Unified School District employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 arrived on Friday, and those who opted not to be inoculated and are without district-authorized religious or medical exemption will be placed on unpaid leave.
As of Friday morning, 43 employees — including 10 teachers — of the 1,812 working for the BUSD had not received the vaccine, according to Superintendent Matt Hill, and the district has already posted job listings for part-time and full-time positions in teaching, accounting, maintenance, technology and food services.
“We are working to hire additional staff to make sure that on Monday school will continue,” Hill said during a Board of Education meeting on Thursday. “There will be some transitions.”
Hill told the Leader on Friday that 99% of certificated employees — such as teachers and nurses — and 97% of classified workers have been inoculated.
The board adopted a resolution that mandated vaccines for BUSD employees on Sept. 2 after the Food and Drug Administration fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.
Since then, employees and community members have pleaded that board members and staff reconsider the mandate and allow BUSD workers to have the option of weekly testing.
Linda Bitto, a Burbank High School office staff employee, questioned the timing of the requirement and said that sudden changes can affect the students.
“What are those kids going to do? We can’t even find the substitutes now for our teachers,” Bitto said during the public comments portion of the meeting. “You’re creating chaos in the offices where dedicated staff members have been forced out of their jobs, resulting in less service to our families and our students.”
Burbank High will also likely be losing jazz band director Tracy Henry, who has worked in the district for 14 years. The longtime teacher said that what has been done to individuals who have been coerced into violating their religious beliefs by having to get vaccinated to keep their jobs “is unforgivable.”
“There are also those of us who have also been mistreated in a thousand small ways, such as being scoffed at for having any religious belief at all or being verbally browbeaten for not having the correct opinion or simply being ostracized in social settings for the crime of making a personal medical decision,” said Henry, who then thanked the community and students for helping him become a better teacher.
Bitto and Henry are just two of many throughout the nation who have opposed coronavirus vaccine mandates and feel that individuals should have other options such as testing and the freedom to choose whether to be inoculated despite assurances from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and medical experts that the vaccines are safe and effective in combating the spread of COVID-19.
Hill and the board reiterated that the decision to enforce vaccinations was not made lightly but had to be done for the safety of students and employees.
“We have outstanding employees in this district that have served this district so well and have had a tremendous impact on students, and we still have outstanding employees,” Hill said. “We are at a pivotal moment in the middle of a pandemic where we’ve made decisions as an organization and [asked], ‘What are the best safety measures we can put in place?’ And so we’ve made that decision as a school district, as an employer, and employees must now make the decision with that condition of employment.”
Board member Steve Ferguson admitted that he hated the idea of losing workers he has known for years, but said he felt he and the district were right to impose a mandate.
“I believe that I am standing in the right moment here,” he said. “Today, I believe as an elected member — and again, I can lose the next election [and] there are remedies for you as members of the public to hold me to account, and I fully own that — but I do believe this is a new standard to work with our kids. I understand there are disagreements about that. As one person elected out of a group of five, I am doing my best within that to keep my core mission of keeping people safe.”
Emily Weisberg echoed her colleague and added that district staff has been working “literally day and night to accommodate, to listen, and to try to be human and humane in the way that we’re doing this.”
“It is well within your rights to make your personal choice to not be vaccinated, but that choice has consequences,” Weisberg said. “They’re not enjoyable. Nobody likes making them, but I know that at the end of the day after [Friday] that our schools will be a safer place.”