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Northwest Minnesota school districts stop requiring masks, testing for unvaccinated employees

U.S. Supreme Court justices voted 6-3 to place a stay on a federal rule that would have required many employers to require their employees to either get vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19

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This is a stock photograph from iStock images, purchased for use by the Grand Forks Herald. (Credit: amVeld)
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EAST GRAND FORKS — After a U.S. Supreme Court decision last week, several northwestern Minnesota public school districts are backing away from vaccine-or-mask requirements they implemented earlier this month .

Top school administrators in East Grand Forks, Crookston and Thief River Falls said they’re no longer enforcing policies their school boards adopted that require unvaccinated employees to wear a mask while they’re on the job and be regularly tested for COVID-19. That’s because the court blocked a temporary rule put forth by the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration that pushes businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to either get vaccinated or get tested once per week.

“Our stance as a district is, you know, please go get vaccinated. That’s what we want our employees to be doing, we think that that's a really good thing,” Jeremy Olson, Crookston Public Schools’ superintendent, told the Herald. “But we are stopping short, and we're not going to mandate anything more than what is required of us.”

Crookston School Board members adopted their policy on Jan. 7, and it went into effect on Jan. 10, the same day East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls School Board members followed suit. Three days later, Supreme Court justices voted 6-3 to stay the OSHA rule while courts of appeals consider challenges to it, arguing that the agency does not have the authority to implement or enforce it. OSHA created the “emergency temporary standard” after President Joe Biden called for it in an executive order he issued shortly after being sworn in last year.

“We knew that a Supreme Court decision would not come out before we were supposed to technically be in compliance, so that's why we adopted it,” said Olson, who said that about 40 of the Crookston district’s approximately 250 staff are not vaccinated or have not disclosed their vaccination status. “It was kind of trying to play both fields because we want to be able to show compliance to OSHA, but then on the other hand, also make sure that we're protecting our interests, and our employees interests as well, should the judicial system rule against it.”

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Thief River Falls School Board members are set to consider rescinding the policy altogether at their meeting on Jan. 24, according to Superintendent Donita Stepan.

“We do not technically have to rescind the policy,” said Stepan. “But we’re going to rescind it anyway and give our School Board a chance to discuss it.”

Model policy

The three districts’ policies were drafted by the Minnesota School Boards Association, a St. Peter-based nonprofit that works to train and advocate for officials at member school districts. The “model policy” that each adopted contains a clause that stipulates it won’t be enforced if it is found to violate any law, and MSBA staff advised their member districts not to enforce the requirement unless the court’s stay is lifted, noting that Minnesota’s OSHA office won’t enforce it unless there are further developments.

“If we don’t have to implement that by rule,” East Grand Forks Superintendent Mike Kolness said Thursday, “then I don’t know why the school district would.”

But there’s a difference between no longer being required to have a policy and not having a policy at all. David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, said Minnesota school districts could probably keep a vaccine-or-mask policy in place even after the Supreme Court ruling.

“It says nothing about what a state can or cannot do, and it also says nothing about what an employer can or cannot do,” Schultz told the Herald. “Could an employer, even if it’s a public employer, still require vaccinations, essentially doing the same thing that Biden tried to do? Yes, they could.”

North Dakota school districts like Grand Forks Public Schools didn’t have to make a decision one way or the other about the OSHA rule because it only applies to “local education agencies” in states that have a state-level OSHA plan. North Dakota does not have such a plan. Administrators at the Grand Forks district have not considered adopting a policy similar to the ones that had been in place in East Grand Forks and beyond, according to spokesperson Tracy Jentz.

And private schools were technically beholden to the rule, but only if they had more than 100 employees. Staff at a handful of Grand Forks-area private schools said they don’t employ enough people to meet that threshold.

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Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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