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Uncertainties remain for Rochester Public Schools ahead of federal vaccine mandate

The school district has more than 2,700 employees who would be impacted by the mandate.

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As the federal vaccine mandate draws near for large employers, the leadership of Rochester Public Schools is still uncertain how aspects of the requirement will apply locally.

The mandate would require organizations with 100 or more employees to require their staff to be vaccinated. RPS has more than 2,700 employees.

Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel said the district will most likely not bring a policy proposal to the School Board before Jan. 18. The federal mandate, he said, will be administered on the state level by the Department of Labor and Industry, which has not yet made clear how local organizations will have to implement the mandate.

"They'll be determining regulations for Minnesota," Pekel said. "We don't have their regulations and their interpretation of it... For us to try to put together a policy when we don't have that guidance I think is asking for a bad policy."

For example, it's unknown how the order would impact the district's relationship with drivers of its bus contractor, First Student. It's also uncertain whether the District would be expected to pay for testing or if that would fall to the individual. Pekel said they also need clarification about how many doses of the vaccine qualifies a person as being fully vaccinated, according to the mandate.

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According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's website, it won't issue citations for noncompliance before Jan. 10. and it won't issue citations for noncompliance with standard’s testing requirements before Feb. 9. OSHA clarified those are the deadlines "so long as an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance."

Pekel said the district may start asking for voluntary disclosure of staff members' vaccination status ahead of time so that it can have all the data ready once the deadline goes into effect.

The law would only apply to staff members of the school district and not students.

As of September, 88% of the district's employees had been vaccinated against COVID-19 . With large data sets, though, there has to be a match between the data that the district has and the database they are comparing the information against.

At the time, there was only a 63% match rate of staff members. Essentially, that means that 88% of the 63% from the positive match rate were confirmed to be vaccinated. The district was using the Minnesota Immunization Information Connection (MIIC) for its vaccine information.

Pekel said the district expects to upgrade its vaccination information in January.

The mandate has faced legal challenges. On Friday, however, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a stay that had been implemented over the mandate. The mandate is facing further legal challenges and has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pekel said the mandate could cause some staff issues for the district.

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"Is it likely to create some labor pressures at a time when we're already challenged with that?" Pekel said. "It's easy to see that."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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