TUSD considers $250 bonuses for employees who get coming 2nd COVID boosters
Sup't Trujillo expects expanded eligibility for 4th jab coming in September
The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board reviewed whether to spend $2.2 million in dwindling pandemic relief funds to encourage staffers to get their second COVID-19 vaccine boosters. Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said at a meeting Tuesday night that he expects the Centers for Disease Control to allow the additional booster shots be provided to more adults, including teachers.
The district is considering $250 stipends to nudge teachers into getting the extra protective shot once it becomes available.
The CDC currently recommends second boosters only for adults 50 years or older, or for people with weak immune systems age 12 or older.
However, adults 18-49 years old are expected to have access to second boosters by September, Trujillo said at Tuesday's Governing Board meeting.
“We do know that a little bit later on in the fall, probably as early as later this month or September, that access to the second booster will be greenlit for everybody else,” Trujillo said. “So we want to stay ahead of it…we want to use every tool in the toolchest to incentivize our employees to stay healthy. ”
The Pima County Health Department hasn't heard from the CDC that expanded booster eligibilty is coming, a spokesperson told TucsonSentinel.com, but "PCHD will follow the guidance from the CDC about boosters."
The TUSD board considered spending $2.2 million from their remaining federal COVID-19 relief funds to give more than 7,500 employees, including teachers and staff, a one-time $250 stipend for getting their second boosters and completing their COVID vaccine series.
“COVID-19 infections continue to present a disruption” at schools and among district staff, Trujillo said. Board members wonder if they should encourage an added booster shot as they expect more coronavirus infections this semester that will disrupt classes.
“We anticipate that there’s going to be some surges this fall, this winter again with COVID as well as flu or other viruses,” said Ravi Shah, a TUSD board member. “We’re trying to avoid that because we want to keep our kids in school.”
Employees who are already fully vaccinated with both booster shots will receive $250 as well, if the item passes. TUSD employees would have until June 30, 2023 to get their second booster and receive the stipend.
The federal COVID relief funds left over in TUSD’s coffers from the last two years would cover the $2.2 million total. TUSD has to prioritize spending those funds on COVID mitigation, Trujillo and other district officials said, which would include vaccination incentives.
The board held off on deciding whether to approve the payouts, however. Boardmembers Shah and Natalie Luna Rose said it would be best to pick the item up again at an undecided future meeting to give them time to see if a better way to spend the money appears.
At least 20 percent of the COVID relief has to be spent on “academic loss,” which can include spending on tutors and summer school. Luna Rose suggested holding off on approving the stipends to consider how to meet that benchmark.
District staff are still looking at how much they’ve set aside so far to meet that 20 percent requirement, said Jon Lansa, TUSD's director for grants and federal programs, as the most recent fiscal year ended in June.
TUSD has more than $132 million remaining in unspent COVID relief left over from the CARES Act, a federal COVID relief bill passed in March 2020, and the American Rescue Plan, which passed a year later.
More than $115 million has been set aside for recurring costs, including $2,500 temporary retention stipends that will be paid to TUSD employees for the current and upcoming semesters.
Without the funds set aside for future spending, TUSD only has $17 million left in COVID relief funds, which are called ESSER funds for schools. More than $268 million has been awarded to the district in COVID relief since the CARES act.
The board also approved spending up to $385,000 in COVID relief funds to hire five general education teachers to combat an ongoing teacher shortage. A couple weeks ago, they approved using relief money to buy 3,600 iPads for students.
'That ship has sailed.'
The remaining COVID funds might be better spent on students, said Governing Board member Sadie Shaw. The issue of trying to encourage employees to get vaccinated is over, Shaw said, telling the rest of the board “that ship has sailed.”
“I would love to see this $2.2 million go to students, whether that be adding libraries or adding more money to the fine arts,” she said. “$250 isn’t much per employee, but across the board and district-wide, we can really help out some of our programs.”
In December, the board voted to approve $500 stipends for teachers who were vaccinated against COVID and $100 if they were boosted. Close to 60 percent of TUSD employees collected the $500 stipend, district officials report.
TUSD's board should take a closer look at the success of the first effort to encourage boosters, Shah said.
“How many (teachers) made that decision (to vaccinate) because the incentive was there?,” Shah said Tuesday. “If all of them were going to get vaccinated anyways, then are we just rewarding this behavior or actually incentivizing and trying to encourage a changed behavior?”
Boardmember Adelita Grijalva noted that unvaccinated teachers have to stay home if they’ve come into close contact with a confirmed COVID case in school, costing schools more in sick pay and substitutes.
“As opposed to if you’re vaccinated, you can stay in school, provided you don’t have any symptoms,” Grijalva said. “Maybe we should review some of that and try to encourage our parents to get students vaccinated as well.”
TUSD can at least make sure that “we keep our teachers as safe as possible...that’s really important as well,” she said.
COVID cases in Pima County increased in mid-June and early July to more than 2,000 new infections per week. That level is still much lower than the more than 11,000 cases that Pima County recorded in each of the first four weeks of January this year, including 18,000 the week of Jan. 9. Another 2,000 cases were reported in Pima County for the week leading up to Wednesday.
Pima County is experiencing "medium" or "yellow" community spread of COVID, according to the CDC. The transimission level is based on the COVID case rate and hospitalization rate of COVID infections in the county. Pima County has a case rate of 205 new cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days and seven new hospital admissions for the virus per 100,000 people along with 3.5 percent of hospital beds being used by COVID patients.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.