May 18, 2022

School board suspends vaccine/testing mandate

Newton awaits Supreme Court verdict, still collecting vaccination status from staff

School board policy requiring Newton Community School District employees to comply with a federal government agency’s COVID-19 vaccine/testing mandate was officially suspended on Jan. 10, just three days after the very same governing body held an emergency meeting to approve the policy.

In an effort to follow the demand of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the policy states all employees of Newton schools are required to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or produce weekly evidence of negative testing and wear face coverings.

Employees who fail to abide by the policy “may face disciplinary action up to and including termination,” the policy states.

Details of the special school board meeting on Jan. 7 are not known by Newton News, which was not made aware of the emergency meeting. At the time this article was published, the minutes had not yet been posted either.

On Jan. 7, the same day the NCSD Board of Education approved the employee vaccine/testing policy, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a press release praising Iowa OSHA and Iowa Labor Commissioner Rod Roberts for neither implementing nor enforcing the federal mandate for businesses with 100 or more workers.

Roberts said the Iowa Division of Labor is charged with protecting the health and safety of those in the workplace and has the authority to enforce such standards for Iowa businesses. He also noted the state doesn’t have a standard requiring testing or vaccinations for COVID-19.

“But after closely reviewing the federal OSHA Vaccine Mandate, Iowa has determined it will not adopt the federal standard,” Roberts said in a statement. “Iowa has concluded that it is not necessary because Iowa’s existing standards are at least as effective as the federal standard change.”

Which means Iowa employers and their employees are not required to comply with the federal OSHA vaccine mandate, the governor’s office stated in a press release. Reynolds applauded Roberts’ decision and said the state will “continue to protect the freedoms and liberties of Iowans.”

Reynolds added, “The Biden Administration continues to ignore the constitutional rights afford to all Americans, which our country was built on. Instead, they’d rather dictate health care decisions and eliminate personal choice, causing our businesses and employees to suffer and exacerbating our workforce shortage.”

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision about its judicial stay and whether OSHA has the legal authority to enforce the mandate ordered by President Joe Biden, the Newton school district’s attorneys said administrators can either pause any further action or implement the federal mandate at this time.

Ahlers & Cooney, P.C., the Newton school district’s law farm, said in a Jan. 8 email the ramifications of Iowa’s decision are not yet known. It is also possible, the firm said, for federal OSHA to step in and enforce the emergency temporary standard (ETS) in Iowa if it is upheld by the Supreme Court.

But Iowa OSHA will not be taking any action against employers who choose not to implement the federal ETS at this time. Newton schools have done just that.

Superintendent Tom Messinger said at the Jan. 10 meeting that he and the school district’s director of business services, Tim Bloom, were watching the boys basketball game when they heard word the state taking a different stance on the federal mandate.

“It is expected that the Supreme Court will, over the next few days, come back with a decision on whether or not they put a stay on the OSHA plan,” Messinger said. “The final decision won’t be made for quite some time. But that’s the first part they’re trying to iron out.”

Right now it is still common for schools to collect data and put implementation aside, Messinger added. At the time of the meeting, about 67 percent of school staff had filled out their vaccination status forms and marked either fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated or unvaccinated.

Suspending the policy “does not really harm anything,” Messinger said. Robyn Friedman, president of the Newton school board, asked if the suspension would prevent the district from still collecting the vaccination status information. Messinger said it wouldn’t have any impact on data collection.

“If administration feels strongly that can still happen, I do agree we shouldn’t move forward with the implementation piece until we have those ducks in a row from the state and federal level also,” Friedman told the superintendent. “Having information, I think, is useful if you don’t feel that’s a problem to get that still.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.