ST. GEORGE — On Sept. 9, President Joe Biden launched his six-step plan to address the continuing spread of COVID-19. The first step will mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require vaccination or weekly testing for all employees.
The mandate would be enforced under an emergency temporary standard passed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It would reportedly apply to private employers as well as public employees – including school district workers in states with OSHA-approved safety plans. Utah is one of 26 such states.
However, the official rule has yet to fully defined and released to state-level agencies, leaving local school district officials at a loss to know what comes next.
“We have had no further communication or direction, and as it stands currently it is not applicable to us,” said Steven Dunham, communications director for the Washington County School District. “OSHA needs to write a rule, and it depends on what the rule says and how it will be enforced as to whether or not it will be applicable to us.”
Iron County School District is similarly awaiting further clarification or direction, said Superintendent Lance Hatch.
“I had a meeting with almost all the superintendents (in Utah) on Monday, and there was a discussion about it but no direction or additional information,” Heaton said. “We have heard nothing from the state – from the governor’s office or from the health department. I think they’re still trying to figure out what to do.”
If the sole qualifier is number of employees, then Washington County and Iron County school districts certainly qualify, but because Utah is one of the states that sets its own standards in consultation with OSHA, state agencies may have some leeway to interpret the rule in their own way.
Lyle Cox, executive director of human resources for the Washington County School District, said the OSHA rule will have to demonstrate that there is an urgent need necessitating an emergency order and that teachers face grave danger as a result of COVID-19.
Even if the emergency standard meets those requirements, it may face challenges in its execution due to a number of complicating factors.
“They’re just so many unanswered questions,” Cox said. “How are they going to require proof of vaccination? Is this something that’s going to require on-site clinics? Will the district be involved with it? How do we deal with people who have sincerely held religious beliefs or concerns because of a health condition?”
Cox’s questions were echoed by David Heaton, public information officer for the Southwest Public Health Department.
“The federal vaccine mandate comes with problematic complications that make its passage uncertain,” Heaton said.
In contrast with the federal government, the local health department has not advocated for any health mandates, but it has continued to encourage residents to get vaccinated as the best form of prevention of serious illness or hospitalization due to COVID-19.
Heaton, Hatch and Dunham all said that they were confident local school district employees who wanted the vaccine have already received it. Educators were among the earliest qualified groups to receive the vaccine, but since then, both districts have relied on voluntary participation alone to immunize their employees.
“Initially, the school district made it available and worked with employees to help them get vaccinated if they wanted,” Hatch said, “but there’s never been any pressure on our employees to get that done, and we don’t intend to do that at this point, either.”
Hatch said he was not aware of any figures or estimates for overall teacher vaccination rates in his district, but he felt confident that all those who wanted the vaccine had been able to receive it.
The Washington County School District did not have exact figures either, but estimates based on surveys of employee interest in early vaccination clinics place overall employee vaccination at around 70%, Dunham said, adding that a mandate might do more harm than good – at least for Washington County schools.
“We believe that if there were a vaccine mandate, it would be an incredible problem,” he said. “Many employees would not adhere to that or would possibly even walk off the job.”
COVID-19 continues to spread at low to moderate levels in local schools. Cases are being reported differently than last year, with exact case counts for individual schools made available once there are five or more active cases.
According to data from the Utah Department of Health on Wednesday, there are at least 41 active cases (teachers and students) in Washington County schools, and at least 35 active cases in Iron County. Between the two districts, only 11 out of 55 schools have no active cases. However, a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune said a backlog in testing has meant that many student families are being notified too late to be effective and that there are questions as to the accuracy of the numbers of cases being reported by the state.
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