Seven of nine Grand Forks School Board members say they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a Herald survey sent to Grand Cities elected officials last month.

The board members who responded said they wanted to protect themselves, their loved ones, or society at large and that vaccines are a good way to defend against the virus.

“When it comes to deciding about vaccinations it is a simple mathematical equation for me. Do the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks of vaccination?” School Board member Eric Lunn, a former executive at Altru Health System and a current pediatrician for Spectra Health, wrote in response. “The science, including the research, says a resounding yes for anyone 12 years of age or older. When more research has been completed, I firmly believe the answer will also be yes for those 6 months to 12 years.”

The board’s reported vaccination rate is the highest among the 10 state and local government bodies whose Grand Cities representatives were surveyed by the Herald. The paper asked 56 elected officials at the head of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks, Grand Forks County, and Polk County’s governments, plus the people who represent the area in Minnesota and North Dakota’s legislatures. Some officials – including Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski and City Council member Danny Weigel – did not respond to the Herald survey but have nonetheless indicated via social media or in public meetings that they've been vaccinated.

Vaccines mandated elsewhere

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COVID-19 has been at the forefront of Grand Forks school officials’ minds for three school years now. School Board members voted 8-1 last month to enact a contentious mask mandate for students and staff, drawing criticism and threats of mass protest from some parents.

The next step for some other school districts has been to mandate vaccines for their staff. St. Paul Public Schools board members voted unanimously on Friday to require staff there to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be regularly tested for it, and a similar statewide requirement was put in place late last month across all of Washington State.

A Grand Forks Public Schools spokeswoman said district staff haven't discussed a similarly styled mandate for vaccines here. Such a mandate would presumably draw a lot of the same political battle lines as mask mandates, but it would be much more difficult to enact.

That’s partly because North Dakota law spells out which vaccines a school district can require students to receive before they can enroll. Unless their parents claim a medical exemption or a sincerely held religious, philosophical or moral objection to an immunization, K-12 students are required to be immunized against 10 different diseases and students younger than need to be immunized against an additional three. Vaccines for COVID-19 are not on either list.

That, in effect, takes K-12 coronavirus vaccine mandates for students out of school districts’ hands and places them in those of North Dakota lawmakers.

But there’s no similar entry in the state’s Century Code for school district workers. It’s unclear, though, whether Grand Forks Public Schools leaders could legally implement a workforce-wide vaccine mandate here. That sort of consideration would depend on the terms of employees’ contracts with the district, according to Jack McDonald, the North Dakota Newspaper Association’s legal counsel.

Tracy Jentz, a school district spokeswoman, did not make Superintendent Terry Brenner available for an interview this week, and Business Manager Scott Berge did not return Herald requests for comment on Thursday or Friday. Jentz said there has been no discussion of a vaccine mandate for students or employees “at the school system level.”

Melissa Buchhop, the head of the Grand Forks Education Association, said she isn’t aware of anything in the teachers union contract with the district that would govern a potential vaccine mandate. She guessed district officials would need to draft a policy requiring it and said she’d want to know other union members’ thoughts on a hypothetical vaccine mandate before speaking for or against one.

“I feel like I could think one way and then they could totally surprise me,” she said of the district’s unionized teachers, who make up about 60% of its teaching staff. “I think when you get to mandating, that’s a little stronger than recommending things. … Last year, a majority of our teachers were in favor of requiring masks, whereas this year the majority wanted it to be a recommendation -- for our members, anyway.”

North Dakota United, the statewide teachers’ union, is officially encouraging everyone who’s eligible to receive a vaccine to get one, according to President Nick Archuleta, but the union is not formally advocating for mandatory masks or vaccinations.

“We do believe that every local entity, whether it's a school board, a county commission, a city commissioner or city council, should be listening to the advice that is being put out by local health professionals, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to make sure that our communities are doing everything they can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Staff at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction said they do not keep track of districts in the state that have mandated vaccines for their employees. Archuleta said he hasn’t heard about any North Dakota school districts that have done so in the first place.

On Friday, St. Paul Public Schools board members voted unanimously to require staff there to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or regularly tested for it from Oct. 15 onward, according to the Star Tribune.

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee last week ordered all K-12 teachers and staff in the state, including bus drivers and coaches, to be fully vaccinated against the virus by Oct. 18, according to National Public Radio. The order encompasses private school employees, too, but not tribal schools. Staff can claim a religious or medical exemption, but not a personal or philosophical one.

The Grand Forks School Board members who indicated they have been vaccinated are Doug Carpenter, Chris Douthit, Amber Flynn, Jacqueline Hassett, Lunn and Bill Palminscno. Jeff Manley and Shannon Mikula did not respond to the survey.

The survey

Last month, the Herald sent a survey to more than 50 local lawmakers and school and city decisionmakers, asking their vaccination status. Of those, 22 replied they have received the vaccine. More than 30 did not respond and three responded by saying they don't want to say. None of those surveyed said they have chosen not to get the vaccine.

Vaccines and masks have become hot political issues in recent months, especially as children return to classrooms, and the Herald's survey added to the local debate. After it was delivered, some of the recipients noted it on social media, prompting numerous comments.

On Aug. 17, the Herald responded with an editorial.

"We can ask politicians their stance on abortion or same-sex marriage, but not whether they have the vaccine? This is the question that blows up the internet?" the editorial said. "Either way, we reserve the right to ask."

Even since then, the debate has intensified as school board meetings in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks have been visited by angry residents both for and against mask mandates. Social media is playing a part, too.

Responding to news that a teacher in California infected a number of students in her classroom, state Rep. Claire Cory, R-Grand Forks, responded on her Facebook post with a two-word comment: "Who cares?"

Cory, when reached for comment by the Herald, noted that the North Dakota Department of Health has reported a single death due to COVID-19 among 15-19 year olds and zero among North Dakotans younger than 15.

"The article was fear-mongering," Cory said in a text message on Friday, referring to the California news. "We can't keep sacrificing our kids' liberties."

Two former Democratic candidates for state office – Adam Fortwengler and Zachary Tomczik – responded to Cory's post with a letter to the Herald.

"It was an immature, flippant, and heartless response from an elected official ill-equipped for the task of representing, and protecting, our most precious residents," they wrote.

The Herald asked federal delegates and high officeholders their vaccination status in a survey earlier this year. Of the 13 who were sent the survey, 10 answered.