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State Superintendent on teacher vaccine mandates: a “strong mitigation strategy”

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Underly and Evers
State Superintendent Jill Underly and Gov. Tony Evers greet students at Toki Middle School in Madison.

MADISON (WKOW) -- In an interview Friday, Wisconsin's top education official said she supported any school district that requires its teachers and staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Jill Underly stopped short of advising that all school districts adopt a vaccine mandate for employees but said all districts needed to do "whatever it takes in order to keep their doors open."

"I've really thought about this and I feel that if it's part of a district's mitigation strategy along with testing, along with masking, and other measures - cleaning - then yes, it's certainly needs to be part of that," Underly said.

Underly referred to other private and public sector employers that have implemented vaccine requirements for workers.

"When you look at travel or tourism, you look at higher education, public education, bars and restaurants, they're pursuing it because it is a strong mitigation strategy," Underly said.

Underly added she was confident districts were better equipped to handle cases this year compared to last fall because administrators and teachers have a better understanding of what protocols work best, ranging from keeping students in consistent pods to desk separation strategies.

The state superintendent, who took office this summer after being elected to the post in April, said districts might have exercised too much caution regarding how many students had to quarantine following confirmed cases.

"We've learned more about spacing, we've learned about things that work like masking and additional training. We've learned more even about contact tracing," Underly said. "And possibly, when you look at last year, we isolated a lot more people than we probably needed to, mostly because we just didn't know, it was being so new."

Still, districts across the state have adopted a wide variety of strategies; many rural districts are leaving the decision to wear a mask up to each student while the Madison Metropolitan School District is requiring elementary and middle students to wear masks, even when they're outside.

In some cases, the fight over COVID-19 policies has led to movements to remove school board members. Underly said she believed such movements were ultimately harmful and, in many cases, clashed with the best interests of students.

"Ultimately, it's about kids, right? In my visits with the schools this week, the kids are happy to be there, the kids are wearing masks, they're happy to see their friends, they don't care if their friend is wearing a mask," Underly said. "Really, it comes down to adults."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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