So. Oregon schools appear to approve all COVID-19 exemption requests

SOUTHERN OREGON, —Governor Kate Brown’s vaccine mandate for teachers and school staff is now in effect. While a handful of people are not complying and going on leave, some districts are reporting hundreds of their staff are being granted exemptions.

In talking to multiple school districts Tuesday, we haven’t found one, that’s denied a single exemption request. The districts aren’t doing anything wrong, this is the way the state has set up the governor’s vaccine mandate.

No major religion has opposed COVID-19 vaccines. Many religious leaders, including Pope Francis, have even come out in support of them. But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of southern Oregon school employees, from getting religious exemptions approved.

“A large majority were religious exemptions,” said Superintendent of the Klamath County School District, Glen Szymoniak.

The area’s largest school district, Medford schools, says 283 people, 18% of its staff have an approved exemption either religious or medical. The district confirms no exemptions were rejected. Medford Superintendent Bret Champion told us last month that his district will not check religious exemption claims, to ensure they are legitimate.

“The reality is we were handed a set of rules, we’re abiding by those rules and we will continue to do so,” said Champion.

Ashland confirms it too approved every exemption request and said the vast majority were religious.

On Monday, the Grants Pass School District told us that 21% of its staff had approved exemptions. Tuesday, a spokeswoman declined to say if any exemption requests were denied, or share how many were medical or religious in nature.

“I believe all those were approved because we didn’t wanna put ourselves in a position of questioning someone’s religion or God,” said Szymoniak.

Szymoniak says of his district’s 895 employees, 237 were granted medical or religious exceptions. That’s about 26% of staff. He said only a handful of them were medical exemptions.

“It was a difficult decision for some people who really didn’t believe in the vaccine,” Szymoniak said. “I didn’t want to put them in a position of get vaccinated or lose your job, so I was glad the exemptions came along and they could have some other choices.”

The state says employees who file a religious exception must sign an OHA  form, stating that they are requesting an exception from the Covid-19 vaccination requirement on the basis of a sincerely held religious belief. It includes a statement describing the way in which the vaccination requirement conflicts with the religious observance, practice, or belief of the individual.

“It’s how the state of Oregon has chosen to maintain this. We will make sure our employees will follow all those rules,” said Champion.

People with approved exemptions may see a change to their jobs, that’s something multiple districts have told us they are currently figuring out. We asked what the governor thought of how the situation was playing out, her office pointed us to the state’s rules, and a video statement Tuesday, thanking Oregonians for getting vaccinated.

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Jenna King
NBC5 News Reporter Jenna King is a Burbank native. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in Sports Business. During her time at the U of O, she was part of the student-run television station, Duck TV. She also grew her passion for sports through interning with the PAC 12 Network. When Jenna is not in the newsroom you can find her rooting for her hometown Dodgers, exploring the outdoors, or binging on the latest Netflix release.
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