Ames schools adopts vaccination, testing policy while Gilbert, Roland-Story wait on Supreme Court ruling

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

The Ames school board voted Monday to adopt a policy that aligns with federal COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements, while other districts in Story County opted to first wait for a decision on the workforce requirements from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even if the court rules that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is within its authority to enforce the requirements, however, a potentially complicated legal situation with the state would still leave Ames in a gray area for a time — wherein unvaccinated district employees would not have to be regularly tested as the requirements mandate.

Under an emergency temporary standard, OSHA is mandating that employers with 100 or more employees require their employees get vaccinated against COVID-19 or wear face masks and submit proof of having undergone testing each week, with exceptions including medical or religious accommodations.

The Biden administration’s mandate covers about 84 million U.S. workers, and officials have previously estimated that the rules would save 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations nationwide over six months.

More:Iowa says it won't enforce federal COVID vaccine-or-testing mandate for employers

OSHA has said it would not act before Monday to enforce the requirement that unvaccinated workers wear masks. It has held off until Feb. 9 on enforcing the vaccination or weekly testing requirement, "so long as an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard," according to the agency.

Those deadlines prompted the Nevada school district to align its district policy with the requirements in a vote last week.

A majority of the Supreme Court seemed skeptical to Biden administration arguments Friday that OSHA has the authority to enforce the requirements. As of Monday night, however, the court had not yet issued an opinion or order on the emergency standard.

Meanwhile, Iowa's labor commissioner said Friday that the state had submitted notice that it does not plan to adopt or enforce OSHA's vaccine or testing requirements.

Kristin Johnson, the Ames district's human resources director, explained Monday that the district would only enforce the testing requirement if — after the Supreme Court were to rule that OSHA has the authority to enforce the requirements — the federal government were to take over enforcement within Iowa from the state.

Johnson explained that could happen if the federal government determines Iowa's substitute plan for protecting workers is not up to par.

While awaiting further clarity, Johnson told board members of the importance of having a policy in place. "We have to be ready," she said, given 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, she said.

More:Central Iowa cities, school districts mixed on compliance with federal COVID-19 vaccine rules

Other districts took different paths Monday. Gilbert and Roland-Story school boards both agreed to pause discussion on policies until there's more clarity around the legal issues at play.

Andrew Ricklefs, the president of Gilbert's school board, said Monday that because of the state's non-enforcement position, the district's legal counsel advised that board members "hold tight and pause and just kind of see what plays out."

If the Supreme Court allows OSHA's requirements to go forward, Kathi Arnold, Ames' health and wellbeing services supervisor, said the district has contacted city authorities about possible partnerships on testing, but no plans have been implemented and would not be until the court issues a ruling on the case.

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.