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Shenandoah School board approves OSHA Emergency Temporary Standards Board Policies

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Shenandoah School board approves OSHA Emergency Temporary Standards Board Policies

The Shenandoah School Board faced a difficult decision Tuesday evening during a special board meeting to discuss the federal vaccination mandate.

On Jan. 4, the board adopted Policy 209.2, which was laid out during a previous meeting before implementing the emergency policy. Following a lengthy discussion with a 4-to-1 vote, the board then approved the OSHA Emergency Temporary Standards Board Policies pending the Supreme Court ruling on Friday, Jan. 7, as to whether federal and state vaccination mandates will go into effect Jan. 10.

Shenandoah Superintendent Dr. Kerri Nelson told the board that if the Supreme Court issues another stay on the mandate, then the district's emergency policy will not go into effect on Jan. 10. But, if the Supreme Court upholds the decision made by the sixth circuit, the district would need to be in compliance by Jan. 10 as OSHA will be within its right to enforce the policies.

Nelson said the board had a couple of options. They could take action and approve the emergency policy pending the decision of the Supreme Court on Jan. 7, so the district was prepared if it did go into effect on Jan. 10. Or, she said, the board could discuss the topic and choose to wait and take action after the Supreme Court’s decision on Jan 7. She said if the board decided to wait, they would have to meet on Saturday or Sunday if a stay was not issued.

Nelson said the district has asked for voluntary compliance from staff on providing their vaccination status and has seen a good response. She said waivers have also been made available to staff if they choose to complete them, even though the process is not required at this time.

“We can already start this process, but none of this is required to date,” Nelson said. “We’ve had very good response from the staff to take care of those types of actions. However, we do not have 100% compliance, and about 40% of our staff still needs to respond in some manner.”

Nelson said some staff was waiting for the board's decision, and some were waiting to see the Supreme Court decision on Jan. 7.

“What I would recommend is whatever action we take tonight, we keep in mind that the seventh may either suspend our action or accelerate our action,” she said.

Nelson said the OSHA fine for an individual serious violation is $13,653. She said the fine for a willful decision by herself, the board or an organization as a whole not to implement a policy would result in a fine of $136,532 applied to the organization in addition to the individual fines.

“They don’t talk about the frequency if you don’t correct the action what happens next,” Nelson said. “Which makes the conversation harder for us.”

Director Benne Rogers asked Nelson how the district would handle religious and medical waivers that would exempt employees from receiving the COVID-19 vaccination.

“It’s my understanding that would be my responsibility, and I’ve accepted that and have signed the ones that have been submitted,” Nelson said.

“I have a minor in biblical studies, but that doesn’t mean I’m a master theologian, a pastor or a priest or even a pastor’s wife or religious official. I don’t know that it's real easy to define what someone's religion is.”

Nelson said the district's religious waivers are being taken seriously, and she is being as generous as possible with her feedback. She said the information given to her does not require that a pastor, priest or any religious official are required to validate the beliefs or confirm them with a particular religion.

According to the information the district received, Nelson said the medical waiver does not require any form of medical attest. She said the waiver does state if an individual is dishonest, that could be addressed.

“Unless I have reason to believe that there's a problem or a deliberate lie, I’m going to trust you unless I have some form of evidence that would suggest differently,” Nelson said. “And I would say most medical doctors are in a position where they would say I would like a few more years to know the research behind whether I say this is 100% safe or not.”

Nelson said there are roughly 230 employees in the district and said if somebody doesn't believe the vaccine is medically safe for them, she is not going to challenge that. She said she would validate and honor sincerely held religious beliefs. Nelson said less than 10% of employees had submitted religious or medical waivers to date.

Rogers also wanted to know who in the district would oversee and ensure that those who chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine wore masks and tested. Nelson said she wasn’t sure whos responsibility that would be at this time.

“If I have to monitor and say you’ve been non-compliant, you need to wear a mask, I will accept that role,” Nelson said. “At this time, the principals don’t know who’s submitted what or what’s been approved or not because it's not necessary for them to have that knowledge. It will be necessary for them to have that knowledge after Monday.”

Another concern the board had was what type of tests would be acceptable and the cost to the employees. Nelson said the guidance for testing had not been defined but said it would be at the employee’s expense. She said the district would work closely with employees to recommend where they could obtain testing at the lowest cost. Nelson said her current intent is to accept the free tests individuals can get through Test Iowa, but there are questions if those will be available.

“This is another example of federal interference saying you're going to do this, and then it's up to the employee or the individual to pay the cost,” said Director Jeff Hiser.

Through experience with federal programs as a school administrator, Nelson believes the OSHA policy will frequently change over the next several months.

“We can’t even have a conversation about whether it's required or not in our country, which is making it difficult,” said Nelson. “So we are in a position where we’ll be continuing to have this conversation at the board level when we know more about what's required and will they accept an in-home test. Currently, it doesn't say we cannot.”

Nelson said the district plans to accept an in-home test from employees for compliance with the OSHA policy until told it is not a legal option.

“Its been valid enough to excuse someone from work to excuse them from attendance in school,” she said. “Its been valid enough to confine them to their homes for periods of time legally in that quarantine process. So if the home tests been valid enough to do that, I would hope that a home test would be valid enough to allow them to work.”

Rogers brought up the question of what fully vaccinated will mean.

“Just like everything else, they change their mind about this, and they change their mind about that,” said Rogers. “Have we thought about what happens when they change their mind about what fully vaccinated means?”

Nelson said until guidance changes, the district would go with what was in front of them at the time. However, she said it was important for the board to discuss these topics.

“I think it's important that we still talk about it and understand the philosophy because you are going to continue to get questions,” Nelson said. “We need to be very transparent about what we're discussing.”

Rogers said he did not agree with the mandate “in any way, shape or form,” but understood the position the district was in and a decision had to be made that was in the best interest for the district, saying, “It’s out of our control.”

“I may have to vote for these policies, but I don't want that to be misconstrued as I’m for these policies,” Rogers said. “I don’t’ think we have to some extent a lot of choice.”

Director Adam Van Der Vliet said not doing anything was “very risky.” Nelson agreed with him and said that while she does not support the concept of forced vaccination, she was willing to enforce public policy and have the district prepared if the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the sixth circuit.

Before voting, Nelson told the board they could attach an adoption to the policy, stating that the policy would be suspended if the Supreme Court acts. Hiser was the sole no.

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