The Hutchinson City Council and Hutchinson School Board felt the weight of the federal government this week as they passed policies to follow new COVID-19 regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. While the decision was marked with frustration from members of each elected body, a Supreme Court ruling days later rendered the policies mute.
The OSHA policy that was in question was a COVID-19 vaccination and testing emergency temporary standard. It would have required employers with more than 100 employees to collect proof of vaccination from employees. Those not fully vaccinated or who do not report their status would have had to wear face masks and be subjected to weekly COVID-19 tests, with exceptions for certain outdoor work and work done at home. Both the city of Hutchinson and Hutchinson School District have more than 100 employees. The mask requirement went into effect Jan. 10, and the weekly testing requirement was scheduled to begin Feb. 9, but the Supreme Court decision put a halt to all of that.
According to the OSHA policy, employers would have faced a fine of more than $13,000 per employee, per day the employer was in violation. Despite the threat of fines, the council approved the policy 4-1, with Council Member Dave Sebesta in opposition.
“It’s hard for me to mandate someone else doing something I don’t have to do,” he said. “I understand the ramifications if it doesn’t pass.”
Council Member Chad Czmowski said that while he understood the frustration, “I’m not comfortable opening ourselves up to unlimited fines.”
Following the Supreme Court’s decision, language in the council’s policy allowed for City Administrator Matt Jaunich to temporarily end the mask restriction, though the council will have to formally withdraw the policy at a future meeting.
Kamrath opposes mandate for schools
On Jan. 10, the day before the City Council meeting, Hutchinson School Board members also met in the City Center to discuss a similar policy for Hutchinson Public Schools employees. And like City Council, the school district’s policy also passed 4-1, with Board Member Keith Kamrath opposed. Board Member Michael Massmann was not present.
The subject drew public comment, with one resident wondering if money was driving the school’s administrative decisions. Another warned that the policy was further driving a wedge between residents, and that he knew of school employees who were being harassed for their personal choices.
Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden told board members, “We are following it because it’s in effect a law now, at this time.” Language of the policy stipulated it was only active if the emergency standard is active. That mean’s following the Supreme Court’s decision, the school’s policy ended.
In explaining his vote of opposition to the policy, School Board Member Keith Kamrath said he was not comfortable with a mandate because he had too many unanswered questions regarding how long vaccines last and why natural immunity from infection isn’t taken more into account. He also highlighted the potential exacerbation of worker shortages. Some employees threatened to quit, he said, and there is already some issues filling positions.
“If we have teachers quit, this is going to impact education,” he said.
School Board Member Erin Knudtson, a doctor at Hutchinson Health, said that while science is still catching up with COVID-19 as new variants emerge, vaccines are still more predictable than natural immunity. While a vaccine isn’t a guarantee against COVID, it reduces the likelihood, and it can reduce the severity of COVID and prevent long-term symptoms. She acknowledged it’s frustrating the vaccines aren’t virtually effective with one dose, such as with the vaccine against measles, but cited the flu as another illness that changes naturally and calls for more shots.
“Some viruses don’t play by those rules ... some change more rapidly,” she said.