Amid conflicting state, federal stances, Ankeny, Waukee, Ames school boards split on COVID vaccine mandate for staff
Central Iowa school boards have landed on different decisions on whether to adopt a federal mandate ordering large employers to require staff to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or mask up and commit to weekly testing.
Ankeny's board on Monday night decided to walk away from the federal mandate, while school boards in Waukee and Ames voted the same night to move forward with vaccine and testing policies.
The decisions came as large employers confront a tenuous deadline to begin complying with the Biden administration's vaccine mandate. The policies adopted by the school boards could change again, depending on U.S. Supreme Court and other federal action on vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, officials in some other Iowa districts and cities are waiting to make changes until the court's decision on the legality of the mandate.
Federal and state rules and timelines over the vaccine or testing regime have shifted in recent weeks. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued rules in November mandating employers with 100 or more workers to require staff be vaccinated or regularly tested, while allowing for medical exemptions. The agency initially announced that it would begin issuing citations to organizations or companies that do not comply with the vaccine requirement on Monday and that haven't begun to comply with the testing rules by Feb. 9.
That timeline has since been postponed by another month.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court heard legal arguments over the new rules on Friday and later that day, Iowa OSHA announced it doesn't plan to enforce the federal rules, leading to further confusion among employers about their obligations.
Ankeny reverses course, backs away from vaccine requirement
The Ankeny school board voted earlier this year to put in place a vaccine requirement for district employees.
Melissa Schilling, the district's legal counsel, and Jessie Dirks, the district's chief officer of legal affairs, told board members Monday that the state has until Jan. 24 to reverse its position. It remains unclear when the Supreme Court will make a decision, if the state government will reverse course and when, or if, the federal government might choose to try to enforce the rules on Iowa employers, Dirks and Schilling said.
Superintendent Erick Pruitt recommended the board continue the policy to remain in compliance with federal rules, but suspend the policy if the Supreme Court blocks the rules.
By a vote of 4-2 Monday night, however, board members suspended the district's policy, taking the position that the district acted in good faith when it first set the requirement and had done so again in following the state's lead.
Board members Trent Murphy, Ryan Weldon, Sarah Barthole and Joy Burk voted to suspend the policy. Katie Claeys and Amy Tagliareni voted against the motion.
"If you get vaccinated, you can't undo it," Murphy, the board's president, said Monday. "If we can suspend, to me, it's fair. We did what we were required to do in good faith. We have more information, and we have a choice now to pause and wait and see what the Supreme Court does."
Waukee adopts a vaccine-testing requirement
In contrast to Ankeny, Waukee board members voted Monday 6-1 to install an employee vaccination and testing policy immediately.
Board member Michael Schrodt said passing the policy would give the district the authority to begin gathering data on vaccination rates among staff if the federal standard is maintained.
"If the feds went out, say, next week and we don't meet for another week after that, it tightens that timeframe on how quickly the administration can gather the data," he said.
According to Waukee's policy, if the Supreme Court were to issue an injunction against the federal mandate, the district can suspend or end its associated policies without formal board action.
Board member Dan Gehlbach voted against the policy, referencing Ankeny's decision as he cast his vote.
"Another school district as early as last week put these policies in place and then, as early as tonight, took them back because of this new guidance," he said. "So I think we're acting too fast. I'm not prepared to vote on this item."
The vote by the Ames school board to adopt a vaccination and testing policy came after Kristin Johnson, the district's human resources director, stressed the importance of having a policy in place.
"We have to be ready," she said, warning that the consequence of not being in compliance with OSHA's requirements could cost the district tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
Other districts took different paths Monday. Gilbert and Roland-Story school boards both agreed to pause discussion on policies until there's more clarity about the legal issues at play.
Andrew Ricklefs, president of Gilbert's school board, said Monday that because of Iowa OSHA's nonenforcement position, the district's legal counsel advised that board members "hold tight and pause and just kind of see what plays out."
Education reporter Phillip Sitter contributed to this report.
Chris Higgins covers the eastern suburbs for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @chris_higgins_.