Carlton County schools wait for guidance on COVID-19 vaccine mandate
School leaders in Cloquet, Carlton, Barnum, Esko, Wrenshall and Moose Lake do not currently require a coronavirus vaccine for either students or staff.
While officials at Carlton County school districts may have some differences in their coronavirus vaccine approaches, one aspect remains the same: they are waiting for guidance on the latest vaccine requirement for businesses with over 100 employees.
The federal Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) is currently tied up in a court challenge, but could have school districts require a coronavirus vaccine for their staff.
School districts in Carlton County do not require a COVID-19 vaccination for either their staff or students, so should the ETS survive its challenges, it could force districts in the county to change their policies.
Here is how districts in Carlton County are approaching the issue:
The ETS handed down by OSHA, along with preliminary timelines for lifting the district’s universal mask mandate were topics of discussion during the Cloquet School Board meeting on Nov. 8.
The ETS, established on Nov. 4, requires employers with over 100 employees to enact a policy 30 days after the publication date to determine vaccination status of their employees, and to establish a weekly testing regimen with mandatory masking for those who are unvaccinated. The policy also sets a 60-day timeline to begin enforcement.
Superintendent Michael Cary informed board members Nov. 8 that he left messages for the Minnesota School Boards Association in hopes of receiving policy guidance ahead of the school board meeting on Monday, Nov. 22. In discussions with the MSBA, Cary said the Cloquet School District has been instructed to take no action on the ETS, as the mandate is in the midst of legal challenges stemming from a stay issued by the Fifth District Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 6. The stay was extended on Nov. 12.
On the date of the extension, OSHA subsequently announced its suspension of the implementation and enforcement of the ETS “pending future developments with the legislation" in a statement posted on its website.
At the same Nov. 8 meeting, Cary mentioned the possibility of lifting the district’s universal mask mandate in light of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine being available to students in the 5-11 age range. No decisions were made on the mandate.
Timelines for lifting the mandate as suggested by Cary were the end of the first semester on Jan. 14, or eight weeks after the Nov. 8 meeting, which would fall on Jan. 3.
The eight-week option takes into account the five weeks between first dose and full immunity, along with additional time to schedule vaccinations. Carlton County has held two vaccination clinics for kids in the 5-11 age group.
The Cloquet School District does not require students or staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. In order for the district to require that students be vaccinated against COVID-19, a change to the Minnesota School Immunization Law would have to take place at the legislative level, according to Cary.
Mandatory vaccines under the Minnesota School Immunization Law include diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (DTaP), polio, measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), hepatitis B, and varicella (chicken pox).
Carlton and Barnum
Much like Cloquet, officials in the Carlton and Barnum school districts are waiting for guidance from the MSBA regarding how to proceed with the ETS.
Mask mandates remain in place in both districts with varying levels of enforcement, officials said.
The Carlton School District has a universal mask mandate that extends to all grade levels. Officials have no imminent plans to lift the policy as a result of growing case numbers within the county. Superintendent John Engstrom said he expects the mandate to remain in place until at least the end of December.
In Barnum, masks are required for all students and staff at the elementary school through grade six. Barnum High School strongly encourages the use of masks for grades 7-12, but does not require them in the building, according to the district's website.
Students in both districts within the 5-11 age group who are interested in receiving the vaccine are being directed to Carlton County Public Health and Human Services for updates.
Esko Superintendent Aaron Fischer said the district does not require a coronavirus vaccination for either its students or staff.
“Currently we do not require vaccinations for anyone, we are waiting for guidance,” he said.
Should the ETS make it through the court system, officials would then develop a plan to follow the policies listed in the ETS.
“I am required to follow the law,” Fischer said.
Just as the past 18 months of living and working with the coronavirus have been fluid, new directives and safety measures for schools have been updating frequently.
Fischer said the district’s current coronavirus plan has been working, as the ultimate goal is to keep students in the classroom.
“We have been able to stay in person learning all year, our plan seems to be allowing us to do that,” he said.
Esko’s current plan is located on its website and is updated whenever the district makes any changes.
Over in Wrenshall, Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro told the school board during its meeting Nov. 15, the district will be taking a proactive approach to prepare for the possibility of a mandate.
“We are just kind of preparing people for if this does come through,” she said. “We have been kinda waiting to hear more about the emergency temporary standard.”
Should a federal mandate be put in place for employees, Belcastro feels it would be beneficial to the district and the community.
“I think it is a good thing, and I think it is really important,” she said. “It has certainly been a tough time and we’re grateful to be in school, but we have a couple people in our community who are quite ill right now.”
As the mandate would come through OSHA, it would not affect any students and the district has no plans to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students, despite vaccinations being available for children who are older than 5.
“Parents get to decide a lot, now that we know 5-year-olds and above are able to get (vaccinated),” she said. “It is positive for the parents that do want them to be (vaccinated).”
Wrenshall would almost be exempt from the ETS. However, after adding in coaches and school board members, the district has 101 employees.
Belcastro has been in contact with the Minnesota Department of Health and the commissioner of education and they have recommended the district start the planning process to enact the policy.
“It is like they are preparing us for what is going to be coming,” she said.
Because it is a federal mandate, the policy would not have to go through the school board as the school would have to enact it.
Belcastro believes a majority of the teachers would react positively to the mandate.
“I would say the majority of our teaching staff are very supportive of this, of the vaccination standards,” she said.
While Wrenshall has not been getting many questions from staff or parents about vaccine mandates that could change if the ETS survives its court challenges.
The district has sent out a letter to its employees letting them know what they would be required to do if the ETS is put in place. For those who are already vaccinated, they will have to provide proof to the school nurse, and those who aren’t will be required to wear a mask and test themselves for the virus weekly.
Like the other districts in Carlton County, the Moose Lake School District does not have any plans to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students, as it is not required under the School Immunization Law in Minnesota.
Superintendent Billie Jo Steen said the district is planning to comply with the OSHA vaccine requirement for staff, but is on standby while they wait for more guidance.