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PR-B School Board again tables action on COVID-19 policy for vaccination or masking and weekly tests

The decision to not meet the deadline set by MNOSHA is not without its risks.

Pine River-Backus School Board meeting with attendees
Pine River-Backus School board had a special meeting Monday, Jan. 10 to discuss the possibility of a new OSHA mandate. Employees with the district were among those in attendance.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
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PINE RIVER — The Pine River-Backus School Board weighed many different considerations Monday, Jan. 10, before ultimately tabling discussion on the vaccination and testing requirements for COVID-19 that went into effect Jan. 10 for entities with more than 100 employees.

The district, and others, are awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the mandate known locally as the MNOSHA (Minnesota's Occupational Safety and Health Administration) COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard.

A week earlier, the school board had heard of the pending Jan. 10 deadline to adopt the policy and agreed at a meeting Jan. 3 to wait until the deadline to decide what to do, hoping the pending Supreme Court challenge would overturn the decision and alleviate entities of the mandate.

The board decided Jan. 10 to continuing putting hope in the high court, this time risking possible increased insurance liability and backlash, even enforcement by MNOSHA.

The Nisswa City Council also discussed the mandate at its Jan. 10 reorganizational meeting. The three council members in attendance tabled discussion until the Supreme Court rules. Council members discussed how the city could enforce the mandate, and whether the city or unvaccinated employees should pay for weekly COVID-19 testing.

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PR-B Superintendent Jon Clark said the district's attorney advised him to recommend that the school board approve policy 491 to bring the school district into compliance with MNOSHA guidelines. He recommended passing the policy for the reasons above, though he said he understood the board's distaste for the policy.

Clark said the district risks losing staff if the board adopts policy 491, which requires either proof of vaccination or a mask combined with weekly testing for COVID-19.

He said the district risked even more losses if the board adopts policy 490, which mandates the COVID-19 vaccine for all employees who do not have an approved religious or medical exemption. Clark said the board risks losing additional staff if it mandates masks for all employees as well as weekly testing for those who are not vaccinated.

Asked what the financial penalties are for being out of compliance, Clark said the numbers are not finalized. However, estimates say fines could be as high as $14,000 for willful noncompliance and up to $135,000 for repeated noncompliance.

Clark reiterated that he feels the district's staff has gone to great lengths to keep the district healthy and operating following its own policies. Asked what the district's current COVID-19 numbers are, Clark said on Jan. 3 there were fewer than five cases in the school district. As of Jan. 10, that number was fewer than 10, though he said with the number of take-home tests given out recently it may be difficult to know the actual numbers.

Board member Dave Sheley said he recognized Clark's recommendation to adopt the policy was not an easy one for him, and he understood Clark was making it with the goal of keeping the school out of hot water. But Sheley still felt strongly that it was not the right thing to do.

Board Chair Chris Cunningham made a motion that the board table the decision on policy 491 until the Monday, Feb. 7, regular board meeting with hopes that the court makes a decision by then. Sheley seconded the motion and the board voted unanimously to table the discussion.

Cunningham said he hoped MNOSHA would show leeway in its requirement for masking akin to the decision not to enforce testing requirements until Feb. 9. According to dli.mn.gov, OSHA is temporarily foregoing the enforcement of testing "so long as businesses are making 'good faith efforts' to implement the rules. MNOSHA will exercise similar enforcement discretion with respect to the compliance dates and will follow federal OSHA'S timeline."

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Clark also discussed various circumstances in which the school district does not have governing power. In the case of subcontractors, such as substitute teachers and substitute transportation, those employees will have to follow the restrictions set by their agency, not the Pine River-Backus School District.

Clark also said that staff working in relation to the Head Start program were covered under the federal mandate, which is even more strict. The school district has no governing power in this case because it is only a host to the Head Start program, but it's a federal program.

As a result, Head Start staff - including teachers as well as nine bus drivers who transport students - may be required under the federal mandate, independent of the school district's stance, not only to wear a mask, but to be vaccinated unless they qualify for religious or medical exemptions.

Clark said the district is working to rearrange bus routes, presumably to coordinate routes transporting Head Start students with currently vaccinated drivers. Once again, there is a risk of losing drivers over the federal mandate.

Several members of the audience thanked the board members for their decision.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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