by ALEXANDRA RETTER 

 

A COVID-19 vaccination or weekly testing requirement is now in place at Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) for employees. 

Under the policy, which the School Board unanimously approved at its January 6 meeting, employees must show proof of vaccination by January 10 or undergo weekly testing and wear a mask until fully vaccinated. The weekly testing requirement will begin February 9.

District leaders brought the policy before the board for consideration after the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MNOSHA) adopted the vaccination or vaccination or weekly testing and masking rule at the beginning of this month, as required by the federal government. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Friday on the federal rule, which has been caught in legal arguments in several courts. The district policy will be in place for six months, unless extended by MNOSHA. The policy allows for its own termination if a legal action determines the requirement is not valid, such as if the Supreme Court places a stay on the mandate. The policy will also align with whatever the district’s COVID policies are, whether they remain as they are now or are changed. 

WAPS has begun collecting data on employee vaccination rates, Human Resources Director Emily Solheid said, and of the 64 percent of employees who have shared whether they are vaccinated, about 93 percent are, while about 6.6 percent are not and plan to be tested for COVID-19 each week. District leaders are working to finalize testing plans and ensure staff have ways to access tests, Solheid said. 

WAPS officials proposed the vaccination or testing and masking policy versus a policy just requiring vaccination, Solheid said, as the district faced a staffing shortage even before the pandemic, and the global health crisis only exacerbated the decline in people going into education. As a result, she said, WAPS officials did not feel they were in a place where they could mandate vaccination. “We just couldn’t afford to lose employees, or substitutes, or volunteers, anyone,” Solheid said. “We are already short staffed. Our staff are quite overworked right now. I’m already very concerned about losing people at the end of the year, let alone at the end of this week. So I really felt we needed to offer an option that allowed a little bit of employee choice while still maintaining that health and safety of our students and staff.” 

School Board member Stephanie Smith said she spoke with quite a few staff members and created a statement based on their feedback. The input boiled down to some staff having concerns that they would have to wear a mask while unvaccinated, even if the district lifted its masking policy, Smith said. “Them having to wear face coverings because they are not vaccinated is the exact definition of segregation,” she said. “They’re being set apart from each other, isolated and divided.” 

The School Board approved the policy following a discussion of the overall pandemic situation in the district. Superintendent Annette Freiheit told the board there is new guidance on isolation and quarantine timelines at the federal level, and she is expecting new state level guidance, as well, so district officials plan to work through that guidance and return to the board with any recommendations for updated COVID mitigation strategies later this month. 

Education@winonapost.com