City of Cambridge, C-I Schools address vaccination mandates

Both the City of Cambridge and the Cambridge-Isanti School District started out the new year needing to wade into the clear-as-mud waters that are the federal vaccination policies for government employees and employers with more than 100 employees.

The policies, which were rolled out by President Biden in early November, had originally been stayed by a ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court. That stay, however, was dissolved by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, thus making the federal mandate applicable starting Jan. 10, 2022, unless a higher court reintroduces the stay.

Under the mandate, government bodies and any employer with more than 100 employees must establish its own policy that either mandates employees to become fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or, if made optional, any employees who are not fully vaccinated must be required to be tested for Covid on a weekly basis, and they must wear masks while at work.

During meetings held on Monday, Jan. 3, both the Cambridge City Council and Cambridge-Isanti School Board approved nearly identical policies, all the while emphasizing that “their hands were tied.”

“It is something we are putting in place because of a federal mandate,” said Cambridge City Administrator Evan Vogel.

“The purpose of this policy is to comply with the federal and state legal requirements,” said Cambridge-Isanti Schools Director of Administrative Services and Human Resources Shawn Kirkeide.

Both Vogel and Kirkeide emphasized that a failure to implement these policies by Jan. 10 could result in heavy fines being levied by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. According to Kirkeide, these fines could be at least $7,000 per incident. He added that anyone could anonymously report a violation to OSHA, and OSHA must investigate every report.

Similarities

Both policies emphasize that they will not mandate staff to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment. However, they both require that a proof of vaccination must be provided in order to avoid having to submit to weekly Covid tests. Those tests will begin on Feb. 9.

Both policies also fulfill the requirement that any unvaccinated staff are required to wear a mask unless they are the only ones in a space or vehicle.

Both policies spell out who are exempt from these policies, including “volunteers and independent contractors.” School Board member Carri Levitski voiced her concern over this portion, citing it appears to contradict Minnesota OSHA’s definition of an “employee,” which includes “anyone who represents the employer.” Kirkeide told her the wording was specifically created in order to clearly define to OSHA who was subject to this policy.

Kirkeide also noted that this policy does not apply to students.

“The vaccination, testing and face covering policy only applies to district employees and does not apply to students.”

In most instances, the city or the school district will provide for the weekly testing at no expense to the employee. For the city, however, Vogel said it must be a test that is administered by a medical professional. Therefore, the city will not pay for at-home tests. The school district’s policy simply states “the school district may pay for employee testing, but is not legally required to do so.”

According to Vogel, he is working with Cambridge Medical Center to see if it is possible to block off some times for staff to be tested. Another option would be to bring someone to administer the tests “in-house.” Kirkeide said tests may be administered through the nurse at whichever building an employee works at, however, there are some employees who don’t work at a building, so they will have to figure all of that out by Feb. 9.

Any employee who fails to prove their vaccination status or fails to get tested will not be allowed to work with others until they successfully do so.

Finally, both policies are subject to change, including being dropped, depending on any changes that take place either federally or through OSHA.

Differences

Levitski, who is not only a bschool oard member but also works for the city, stated the two policies are almost “word-for-word” the same; however, there are a couple differences.

The biggest difference between the two is regarding the wearing of masks. According to Vogel, the city has had for some time now a policy that every employee, regardless of their vaccination status, should be wearing a mask when they are around other people.

“I have a separate policy that is currently in place for all common areas of the city, so should this (the federal mandate) dissolve, there are still safety measures that the city is taking to ensure the safety of our employees,” Vogel said.

With the school board, it is only required that masks be worn by unvaccinated employees. This was another concern of Levitski’s, in terms of people being singled out due to starting to wear a mask on Jan. 10.

“It (wearing a mask) could be identified as not being vaccinated, which could open them up to being discriminated against,” Levitski said. “It’s a very political, very polarizing issue. I would prefer that we flat-out say everybody wears a mask so that nobody can be identified. I don’t foresee it (happening) because we have such great employees, but if it does become an issue, I’d like to bring it back before the board.”

Superintendent Dr. Nate Rudolph responded to her concerns. “Case in point, there are people here in this room who are vaccinated and people who are likely not vaccinated — who are wearing masks or are not wearing masks. One of the things we will need to work on proactively in our communications with our staff is that you don’t get to jump to conclusions. Don’t make assumptions. There are some people who can’t mask. There are some people who have to mask. We will talk about grace and about being a positive roll model and following the ‘Bluejacket Way,’ just like we do with our students.”

Isanti County holding off

By comparison, the Isanti County Commissioners haven’t officially pulled the trigger on adopting a policy. According to County Administrator Julia Lines, the board is waiting until Jan. 7, when the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments regarding the federal mandate.

“We are waiting until the Jan. 7 Supreme Court discussion before moving forward with a policy,” Lines said in an email. “We do have draft policies and procedures ready to go should they be needed on the 10th, and it will be discussed by the Board at the Committee of the Whole meeting on Jan. 12.”

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