An average of 76 percent of school staff in Maine are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but the percentage of vaccinated staff varies widely by school, ranging from zero to 100 percent.

Vaccination rates are slightly lower for schools’ central operations staff, which include bus drivers, central office employees and others who usually are not assigned to a particular school. The overall vaccination rate among those school employees is 69 percent, according to data released by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education Wednesday.

“More than three-quarters of Maine school staff have taken a vital step to protect themselves and the health of our children and communities by getting vaccinated against COVID-19,” DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a news release. “By publishing these vaccination rates each month, we hope to boost school staff vaccination even further, curb the spread of COVID-19, and equip school leaders with information to make the best decisions for their communities.”

The data released by the state comes a few weeks after schools returned to full in-person learning and as a late summer surge of COVID-19 is spreading through the unvaccinated population in Maine and nationwide. President Biden has called on governors to require vaccines for teachers and school staff as part of his COVID-19 action plan. The White House said last week that nine states and the District of Columbia already have vaccine requirements for K-12 school staff, while Maine is among the majority of states that do not.

“The governor’s overarching goal is to increase vaccinations among all Maine people, including teachers and school staff,” Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Mills, said in an email response to questions about whether the governor would consider a vaccine mandate for school staff. “While we are encouraged to see relatively high vaccination rates within many school systems … these data are new, and the administration is beginning the process of analyzing it more closely. We will use the new data and information from school leaders, other states, and the public to develop additional strategies to help us accomplish this goal.”

The new data is part of the state’s COVID vaccine dashboard and will be updated on a monthly basis with vaccination rates as of the last day of the previous month as submitted by both public and private pre-K-12 schools. This month’s vaccination rates reflect data as of Aug. 31. The numbers provide the first comprehensive look at vaccination rates for teachers and school staff in Maine, though there are also a few caveats to the data.

Only 85 percent of schools reported vaccination rates, even though the state has said it is required. It wasn’t clear Wednesday whether schools had a uniform way of collecting and verifying vaccination statuses or if they were mandating reporting from their staff. A note in the dashboard says individual staff who did not respond to their school’s request for vaccination status were reported as unvaccinated.

“As with all new data collection efforts, this is a work in progress, with the data quality and completeness expected to increase each month,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in its release. “School entities are encouraged to post their own rates as well.”

Among the schools that did report, vaccination rates vary widely.

At Cheverus, a private Catholic high school in Portland that implemented a policy earlier this year requiring all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Aug. 16, all staff are fully vaccinated.

The school employs 105 people and Jeanette Wycoff, director of communications, said the mandate was well-received. Requests for medical or religious exemptions were accepted.

In Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, school staff vaccination rates range from 100 percent at Longfellow Elementary School to 81 percent at Deering High School. The vaccination rate for central operations staff is 86 percent. School staff are defined by the state as any employee, whether full-time, part-time or temporary, who is primarily assigned to a single building, while central operations staff may work across a district or in multiple buildings.

The school board in Portland voted 5-4 last week to reject a proposal calling for an employee vaccine mandate, with board members citing the district’s already high overall vaccination rate of 92 percent among building-based staff and concerns that a mandate could result in the loss of staff in hard-to-fill areas such as transportation.

The data released by the state Wednesday also includes average school staff vaccination rates by county.

Cumberland County boasts the highest average of school staff vaccination rates at 88.9 percent. Several schools in Cumberland County, including Great Falls Elementary School in Gorham, Cape Elizabeth Middle School and Waynflete School have vaccination rates at or very close to 100 percent.

Yet even in Cumberland County there are schools with lower reported vaccination rates. In the Falmouth Public Schools, for example, just 54.7 percent of school staff at Falmouth Elementary School are fully vaccinated and just 28 percent of central operations staff are fully vaccinated, according to the state’s data.

The state dashboard doesn’t accurately reflect vaccination rates in Falmouth schools, however, according to Superintendent Gretchen McNulty. McNulty said the rates in the dashboard are a reflection of staff who voluntarily reported their vaccination status and not a reflection of all staff.

“We cannot infer that staff who have not voluntarily shared proof of vaccination at this time (for example, 45 percent at Falmouth Elementary School) are unvaccinated, nor do we believe that is the case,” McNulty said in an email. “As of today in fact, the number of elementary school staff who have submitted proof of vaccination is closer to 65 percent.”

McNulty said the district is holding itself to a higher standard of proof than what was required by the state by asking staff to provide proof of vaccination rather than survey responses. That has led to reporting significantly lower numbers than is the reality, she said.

“We continue to convey to staff the importance of sharing their vaccination status with us, but do understand this is voluntary, and not required at this time,” McNulty said. “We expect our reported numbers for the coming month will be significantly higher.”

Waldo County has the lowest number of vaccinated school staff with an average of 60.7 percent. In Unity-based Regional School Unit 3, just 12 percent of staff are vaccinated at Mt. View Elementary School and just 20 percent are vaccinated at Morse Memorial School. Superintendent Charles Brown did not respond to a phone message or email Wednesday.

Waldo county also has the highest infection rate among Maine counties.

The release of data on school staff vaccinations is part of a broader strategy by the Mills administration to encourage COVID-19 vaccination. The state is already publishing estimated vaccination rates for Maine students by school district and reported vaccination rates for health care workers.

Overall the state is a leader in vaccination rates nationally, with just Vermont and Connecticut boasting higher vaccination rates among the general population, according to the U.S. CDC. Sixty-four percent of Maine’s population of 1.3 million people are fully vaccinated and 73 percent of eligible Mainers 12 and over are fully vaccinated, according to the Maine CDC.

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