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Pine River-Backus School District: District puts hopes in Supreme Court challenge regarding vaccine mandate

Special meeting scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 10, to decide on new OSHA safety policy.

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PineandLakes Echo Journal file photo (Feb. 2020).

The Pine River-Backus School Board delayed a decision that could require staff to choose between vaccination and weekly testing and masks with hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the Occupational Safety and Health Administration policy on vaccine mandates.

Superintendent Jon Clark presented the board with two policies Monday, Jan. 3. He did not recommend the policy that would mandate that all employees at the school be vaccinated against COVID-19 with the exception of those with valid religious or medical exemptions.


" It is disappointing. They put us in a situation where we're making people make a decision. It's the scarlet letter of COVID. If you're wearing a mask you're saying you're not vaccinated. I don't think that's right. "

— Dave Sheley.


Clark said that because the district and its employees could receive penalties if they are out of compliance, he would instead recommend the policy that allows non-vaccinated staff to wear masks and undergo weekly COVID-19 testing instead.

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Clark believes the district has been handling the pandemic well without a vaccine mandate and he was afraid some employees said they would have to make a decision whether to remain with the district if the policy is accepted. He and the board acknowledged it would be difficult to enforce the policy.

Board member Dave Sheley said he did not like how the presence of masks would remove some sense of privacy from the decision to not vaccinate.

"It is disappointing," Sheley said. "They put us in a situation where we're making people make a decision. It's the scarlet letter of COVID. If you're wearing a mask you're saying you're not vaccinated. I don't think that's right."

Clark said that was the same concern most of the staff had, as they did not seem bothered by testing. He said the board has the power to require all staff to wear masks as well, though he warned that would likely not be well received.

Board member Katy Botz asked how steep the penalties are. Clark said the cost is not yet known. Board chair Chris Cunningham said it puts the board in a difficult situation in deciding whether to incur financial penalties for noncompliance while also making difficult financial decisions to avoid burdening taxpayers, or whether to force staff to wear masks.

Clark said there is still a possibility the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn the mandate. The court will hear oral arguments Jan. 7. While there is no guarantee a decision will be made before Jan. 10, the district does not need to have a policy until then.

The board agreed to delay the decision until Jan. 10 with the hope that the court will overturn the mandate. A special meeting was scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 10, to decide on the policy.

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.

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