W. L. Hightower, pastor of New Zion Baptish Church in Louisville, receives the Moderna vaccine, administered by Mississippi State Department of Health Phamacist Kathryn Ward at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson. Hightower was among a number of African American faith leaders from across the state to receive the COVID-19 vaccination Monday at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Tower

The Mississippi Department of Education on Thursday issued a letter to school administrators giving them the go-ahead on financial payouts to teachers and staff members who get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Some school districts were waiting on guidance from the state education department to move forward with plans to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to incentivize teachers and staff to be vaccinated with up to $1,000 payments.

“MDE hopes the vaccine incentive opportunity will help get more people vaccinated so students can continue in-person learning with fewer disruptions,” a statement from Jean Cook, the spokesperson for MDE, said. “Teacher and student absences due to COVID-19 exposure and infection interrupt teaching and learning.”

The letter from Judy Nelson, executive director of the Office of Federal Programs in MDE, says districts may incentivize vaccinations if they have local board approval prior to implementing the incentives. The district must also establish a written procedure for determining the allowability of costs and “to maintain effective internal control over the Federal award.”

The guidance also says the amount must be reasonable, which it characterizes as an amount ranging from $100 to $1,000.

“LEAs (local education agencies) shall be prepared to document what is considered reasonable,” it states.

School districts in Biloxi, Kosciusko and Bay St. Louis-Waveland all planned to use these funds for an incentive program. Their goal is to have a higher percentage of teachers and staff vaccinated to help continue in-person school and decrease absences.

“It will hopefully save me on substitute teacher costs and wasting instructional time and the time of assistant teachers — not to mention the loss of instruction,” Biloxi Superintendent Marcus Boudreaux said.  

Biloxi, like several other districts across the state, is facing a major shortage of available substitute teachers to cover classes for teachers who are out sick with COVID-19 or quarantined, in addition to non-pandemic related absences.

Districts are planning to use funds from the most recent federal coronavirus relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, to pay for the incentives. The U.S. Congress passed the bill in March, and it sent a total of around $1.6 billion to schools in Mississippi.

Biloxi received around $18.3 million of those funds, while Kosciusko got $7.3 million and Bay St. Louis-Waveland got around $6.6 million. The money can be used for an array of purposes, from purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean buildings to training and professional development for teachers and staff, in addition to purchasing educational technology and providing mental health supports for students.

ESSER funds may be used for vaccination outreach efforts, which “could include activities to create awareness and build confidence, facilitate clinics, and provide incentives … for staff to get vaccinated,” a U.S. Department of Education document states.

Natchez-Adams School District recently approved a plan that would offer incentives to employees who get vaccinated and require those who don’t to submit to twice-weekly testing. It is not clear what funds they are using to support that program.

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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.