How federal vaccine mandates affect Idaho education

President Joe Biden has announced sweeping vaccine mandates for big businesses and some federal education programs. Courtesy Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.

Staff of at least two schools and a baker’s dozen Head Start programs in Idaho will be required to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, per a new federal mandate.

President Joe Biden recently announced vaccine mandates for big businesses, rousing fierce political ire from Idaho’s Republican leadership. But the requirements for private companies — which have drawn threats of legal action from Gov. Brad Little and a failed attempt to reconvene the Legislature from House conservatives — have captured more attention than some lesser-known implications for Idaho education. Businesses with over 100 employees must either mandate coronavirus jabs for all staff, or test staff members weekly, according to the Associated Press. But employees of federally run schools as well as Head Start and Early Head Start programs must also get the vaccine, and weekly testing won’t be an alternative option.

That includes at least the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School and the Shoshone Bannock School District in Pocatello, both of which are run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. It also applies to Head Start programs in Idaho, which employ over 1,300 people, Idaho Head Start Association Executive Director Bill Foxcroft confirmed to EdNews last week.

“Head Start programs are all funded (by) federal appropriations … so they’re obligated to follow federal requirements. So this applies to every Head Start program in the country as well as every one in Idaho,” Foxcroft said.

It’s unclear when employees must be vaccinated by.

The mandates come as Idaho hospitals are forced to ration care as mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients have caused overcrowding in ICUs and strained multiple health care systems. School-age children have made up an increased share of Idaho’s cases as the delta variant continues to be the dominant coronavirus strain in the state, according to EdNews reports.

While the mandates could serve as a stopgap for Idaho’s overextended medical system, they could have unintended consequences.

“People are dying unnecessarily” of COVID-19, but Foxcroft worries Head Start teachers who refuse to get the vaccine and leave their jobs will exacerbate an existing worker shortage — which he attributes to low wages — and will make it harder for the early education programs to stay up and running in Idaho.

“It’s a two-edged sword. I think mandates are necessary to get people out of the pandemic because people aren’t going to get vaccinated unless they’re forced to. But on the other hand, (the mandate will) impact your ability to keep qualified staff,” he said.

The association, which works with Idaho’s congressional delegation to secure funding for Idaho programs, won’t use its relationships with elected officials to push back against the mandate, but Foxcroft says his concerns linger.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribal School and Shoshone Bannock School District have around 30 employees each. Even combined with the far greater number of Head Start employees, those figures are a drop in the bucket compared to the 40,000-plus who staff state-run K-12 schools.

No Idaho-run schools or districts have passed coronavirus vaccine mandates for staff or students. About 16 have mask mandates, according to EdNews tracking.

Head Start early education programs are meant to help children prepare for kindergarten, and they target low-income students and students with disabilities who may benefit most from extra academic and social support.

Administrators from the affected schools and multiple Head Start programs could not be reached for comment before publication.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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