AUGUSTA — In an effort to boost teacher vaccination rates in the state, Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Department of Health and Human Services announced Sept. 15 a new dashboard showing staff vaccination rates in Maine school districts. The dashboard shows the percentage of school and central operations staff who are fully vaccinated, as reported by each district.

In a note to teachers and staff on reporting the data, DHHS said, “Having a fully vaccinated education workforce, as well as vaccinating all students for whom the vaccine is authorized, is essential to ensuring that our schools are safe for students not eligible to be vaccinated and that schools remain fully open for in-person learning.”

The data is collected and updated monthly using an anonymous survey given to teachers and staff. While the survey is optional for staff to complete, school districts are required to submit completed surveys to the state.

According to DHHS, the agency has the authority to request the information and any district not complying with the directive can be reported to the Maine Attorney General’s Office for enforcement action.

As of Aug. 31, the average vaccination rate for all school staff in Waldo County was 60.7%, according to the state dashboard. The data shows Regional School Unit 3 having one of the lowest rates in the state, with an average staff vaccination rate of 23.6%.

Vaccination rates for staff at RSU 3 schools are listed as follows: Monroe Elementary, 33.3%; Morse Memorial Elementary, 20%; Mount View Elementary, 12.2%; Mount View Middle, 42.9%; Mount View High School, 30%; and Troy Elementary, 26.7%.

Walker Elementary does not show any results and Unity Elementary is labeled as “suppressed or did not submit,” meaning the school either has fewer than five staff members or no survey was returned.

The average staff vaccination rate for Regional School Unit 71 as of Aug. 31 was 61.9 %, including:  Ames Elementary, 61.5%; Gladys Weymouth Elementary, 85.7%; Belfast Area High School, 30.2%; Capt. Albert Stevens School, 62.5%; East Belfast School, 66.7%; and Kermit S. Nickerson School, 53.8%.

And the average vaccination rate for staff in Regional School Unit 20 at the end of August was 68.4%, including: Searsport High School, 78.3%; Searsport Middle School, 64.5%; and Searsport Elementary, 62.5%.

Staff vaccination rates at other schools in the county as of Aug. 31 include Ecology Learning Center with 72.2%; Edna Drinkwater School, 97.1%; Ironwood School, 100%; Islesboro Central School, 76.9%; Leroy H. Smith School, 79.9%; Lincolnville Central School, 77.5%; Maine Ocean School, 100%; Palermo Consolidated School, 75.9%; Samuel L. Wagner Middle School, 73.7%; Sweetser Belfast, 81%; and Waldo County Technical Center, 61.9%.

In the notes below the chart, there are 10 bullet points describing the information. The second-to-last point explains that staff who did not respond to the optional survey are counted as unvaccinated.

In a letter to the RSU 3 community Sept. 16, Superintendent Charles Brown said the assumption that teachers who did not respond to the survey are unvaccinated “simply isn’t true data.”

For the month of October, Brown said that out of 300 staff employed at RSU 3, 229 responded to the survey and overall 78.23% were vaccinated.

Brown listed the following data for each school: Monroe Elementary, of a total staff of seven, all were fully vaccinated, or 100%; Morse Memorial, of 14 total staff, nine are vaccinated, or 64.29%; Mount View Elementary, of 34 total staff, 31 are vaccinated, or 91.18%; Mount View Middle, of 33 total staff, 31 are vaccinated, or 93.94%; Mount View High School, of 48 total staff, 40 are vaccinated, or 83.33%; Troy Elementary, of nine total staff, all are vaccinated, or 100%; Walker Elementary, of 10 total staff, nine are vaccinated, or 90%; Unity School, of five total staff, four are vaccinated, or 80%; and Central Operations, of 111 staff, 72 are vaccinated, or 64.86%.

Further, Brown said the district respects the right of employees to choose whether to participate in the survey, and the data as presented on the DHHS site is not completely accurate because of the staff’s right to choose.

More than one superintendent said districts were not given sufficient time to collect the data for the month of September and that the findings for that month do not accurately depict total teacher vaccination rates, since the surveys are optional.

RSU 71 Superintendent Mary Alice McLean reported in her Oct. 8 weekly update that the staff at Ames Elementary is now 78% fully vaccinated; Gladys Weymouth, 93%; Capt. Albert Stevens School, 89%; East Belfast School, 91.3%; Kermit S. Nickerson School, 60%; Troy Howard Middle School, 88%; and Belfast High School/BCOPE, 86%.

RSU 20 Superintendent Chris Downing said the first time his district was asked to return the data on teacher vaccination rates, it was given only 48 hours to complete the process, which was not enough time to elicit a large response.

The second time, he said, “We had more time, and we got a much better return, with about 90% of staff responding.” Some staff chose not to take part in the survey, Downing said, adding that he respected their decision.

When asked why the state chose to categorize nonresponding staff as “unvaccinated,” Kelli Deveaux, director of communications for Maine Department of Education, said DHHS included those who did not respond in order to reflect full school staff populations.

She went on to say schools can submit missing and updated data each month and the dashboard will reflect the new information.

The push to have teachers and staff vaccinated could be a moot point after a Sept. 9 announcement by President Joe Biden that his national strategy to combat COVID-19 includes a mandate for staff in all school districts with over 100 employees to be vaccinated.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced in a Sept. 17 press release  that based on Biden’s action plan, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would develop a rule requiring employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or tested weekly.

The press release specifically identifies state, county and local governments and public school systems as sectors in Maine that would be affected by this ruling.

“In Maine, these public entities include: state and local governments, public school systems, the University of Maine system, the Maine Community College system, Maine Maritime Academy, the Maine Turnpike Authority, and sewer and water districts,” the release said.

The Maine Board of Occupational Safety and Health is required to adopt and enforce OSHA’s forthcoming rule for public employers within 30 days of the rule’s release and may choose to implement more rigorous standards than those set out by the federal agency.

Maine Labor Department Communications Manager Jessica Picard said her agency is awaiting the final rule from OSHA, which is in development, so the timing and details of its implementation are unknown at this time.

“We recognize that there are many questions, and the Maine Department of Labor will continue to communicate with impacted stakeholders and the public as more information becomes available from the federal government,” she said.

To see the DHHS school vaccination dashboard, visit maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/infectious-disease/immunization/publications/vaccination-rates-school-staff.shtml.