Boxes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine sit in a packing box to be shipped from the McKesson distribution center in Olive Branch, Miss., Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, Pool)

The Natchez-Adams School District could require all its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to work in the district next year. 

Phillip West, the vice chair of the school board for the Natchez-Adams School District, said he’ll be introducing a motion at the board meeting Tuesday to require all eligible employees of the district to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. The policy would allow for employees with legitimate medical conditions or religious reasons to be exempt.

The board discussed the matter in a recent work session, and most members were in favor, he said. Several had concerns about an “exodus” of teachers walking off the job or potential legal challenges to such a requirement. 

“It is my position, and a number of others agreed with the position, that this is a public health crisis,” said West, a former state legislator and the mayor of Natchez from 2004 to 2008. “I’m trying to be proactive instead of reactive.”

Amos James, the president of the board, said he had no opinion on the matter at this time.

Cecile Bunch, the board secretary, declined to comment when reached on Thursday. Bruce Kuehnle, the board attorney, said he is still researching the matter after being asked by the board to do so. 

He said it would not be appropriate to discuss the issue until he reports back to the board. 

Mississippi is currently facing a fourth wave of COVID infections. Adams County had the 14th highest number of cases of the state’s 82 counties over a two-week period in July, according to the Mississippi Department of Health. It also had a test positivity rate of 18.1% from June 30 to July 13, meaning nearly one in five tests for COVID-19 came back positive.

Thirty-two percent of Adams County residents are fully vaccinated as of Thursday.

West maintains that requiring eligible employees to be vaccinated is a “no brainer,” though it would take some logistical adjustments, including that teachers have already signed contracts for the school year that do not include a requirement they be vaccinated.

West said he believes the school board must be the one to act because Gov. Tate Reeves and the state education department are making decisions based on the “political climate.” At the Neshoba County Fair on Thursday, Reeves said “1.2 million Mississippians have chosen to get vaccinated. Others have chosen a different path. I will always defend those people’s right to decide what is best for them and their families.”

West continued: “As a result of that, I think we could be causing harm as opposed to preventing harm, if we don’t do something. And maybe by us doing this some other districts might consider it themselves,” he continued. “But I’m mainly concerned with my district.”

It’s unclear whether other Mississippi school districts are currently considering a similar mandate. Jean Cook, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Education, said the department is not aware of any other districts planning to require the vaccine.  

Generally, employers in both the public and private sector have the ability to require certain vaccinations of their employees, Joseph Adams, a Jackson employment and labor attorney who represents the Mississippi Professional Educators, said. 

“I do not know of any law whatsoever that would prohibit private or public employers in Mississippi from putting a mandatory vaccine program in place,” said Adams. “ … I think in the school system it would be an even more compelling interest to do that because you have teachers being around kids, everybody going home and so forth.”

But Adams said he’s not aware of any challenges that have gone through the court system, and it’s new legal territory. 

“Generally speaking, employers have a lot of leeway in this regard. But the facts and circumstances of individuals who object (to the vaccine) are going to have to be considered,” said Adams. 

Nationally, President Joe Biden on Thursday announced that federal employees and contractors must confirm they’ve been vaccinated or else be tested twice a week for the coronavirus.

While children who attend public schools and colleges and universities in the state must receive certain vaccines unless they have an exemption, teachers and school staff are not required by law to show proof of any vaccination, according to the Mississippi Department of Health. 

“This has been done in the health care area, in colleges throughout the United States requiring students who come to their schools to show proof of vaccination and by people in private sector business,” said West, also referring to the recent discussion of requiring federal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. “It’s a no brainer to me. People can sue you for a ham sandwich, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a frivolous lawsuit.”  

The University of Mississippi Medical Center recently announced that it will require its employees and students to get the COVID-19 vaccine once the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The policy will be phased in over the course of three months. 

The new school year begins on Monday for the district. 

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.