Litchfield School District employees will be required to provide proof of vaccination, or submit to regular COVID-19 testing and mask wearing following action by the Litchfield School Board Monday.

The board’s approval of “Policy 491” came after a familiar discussion regarding the debate over mandatory safety measures in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was approved on a 5-0 vote, with board member Alex Carlson absent.

Board Chairman Darrin Anderson acknowledged as he introduced the topic that he was not a fan of the requirement, but he said the district had little choice but to comply, lest it risk fines and loss of state and federal funding.

“This is one of those times where this school board’s hands are tied,” Anderson said. “This is not us bringing it forward. This is the federal government telling us, ‘this is what you have to do.’”

It was something that at least some board members and others had hoped would not come before the board. Policy 491 is written to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Emergency Temporary Standard on Vaccination and Testing, or ETS. It was one of two policies the board could have chosen – the other, Policy 490, would have mandated vaccinations for all employees, but found little support from board members at Monday’s meeting.

OSHA’s ETS, which affects employers with 100 or more employees, took effect Monday. It has been challenged in court, and was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court last week. A ruling on the mandatory vaccination and/or testing and masking is expected any time. In fact, Anderson and Superintendent Beckie Simenson said during the meeting they had thought a ruling might come prior to Monday’s meeting. Because it had not, the board needed to act.

“This is a federal mandate,” Simenson said. “It is law. If we do not as a district (follow it), we will be scrutinized, we will be fined. We’ve kind of waited as long as we possibly can. If we don’t choose 490 or 491, we face consequences. At this point, it is federal law and we need to decide … either we do testing with masks by Feb. 9, otherwise we would have to say everybody needs to be vaccinated.”

District Business Manager Jesse Johnson echoed the seriousness of the issue, saying, “there’s a few organizations I wouldn’t mess with — OSHA, the IRS … they’re not just bark, they have bite.”

That bite in the case of the ETS, is fines of up to $13,000 per infraction, with the fines escalating to 10 times that for willful or repeated violations by the employer.

Of the district’s 300 full- and part-time staff, Simenson said, 184 have provided documentation of their vaccination status. About 116 have not. That does not mean all 116 have not been vaccinated, Simenson clarified, just that they have not provided documentation of vaccination status.

While Anderson lamented what he called the mandate’s infringement on “personal liberties,” board member Greg Mathews — a steadfast supporter of masking mandates and vaccinations — saw it as helpful.

“Every school board in the state ought to be rejoicing right now,” Mathews said, because the weight of decision has been taken away from them. “We don’t have to take the heat one way or another. We’re simply following OSHA or else.”

Still, Anderson said, he thought the board would be “the fall people. We’re being blamed for something … whatever decision we make, we’re going to be looked at” and people will ask why the board approved the policy.

“Rules are put into place to protect people,” Mathews said. I don’t have a problem with saying, ‘look, we’re not going to allow this.’ I’ve taken more heat than probably all of you combined. That’s what I was elected to do. I’m fine with that.”

Board member Julie Pennertz said she worried that policy 491’s requirement that the unvaccinated wear a mask make them easily identifiable and create situations where they would be “stigmatized.”

“The problem I still see is, we are separating people when we should be working towards unification,” Pennertz said. “I believe we need to get COVID under control. Looking back at other pandemics in history, it took the vaccinations to eradicate (them). …(I)n this day and age, it is becoming very political, and I believe because of that, it is only causing more and more division amongst a variety of groups.”

While reiterating that the district had little choice but to follow the OSHA requirements, at least until the Supreme Court rules on their constitutionality, Anderson said he wanted to be sure that the district paid for testing that would be required of unvaccinated employees.

Johnson said the district has about $89,000 in federal testing funds that could be used to cover the cost.

In offering the motion to implement Policy 491, Pennertz included the stipulation that at-school testing for unvaccinated employees would be covered by the school district.