LEWISTON — The School Committee and administrators expressed serious concerns Monday night about a pending federal requirement that organizations with at least 100 staff be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or present proof of weekly negative testing.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules are planned to go into effect for Maine’s public sector employees beginning Feb. 17. The standard is being examined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Superintendent Jake Langlais said the district’s Human Resource Department is working to draft policy related to the rules. Schools will have until March 19 to comply with the testing requirement.

“I’ll say out loud, when this first got introduced, we sat in a room and we just stared at each other for a moment and said ‘how are we supposed to do this?'” Langlais said. “I don’t know that we even have the capacity from a staff perspective to even monitor this, never mind ensure that if this is audited from an OSHA perspective, that this was done with efficacy and thoroughly. It’s going to be a real challenge if it remains.”

Fully vaccinated means the person has received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Booster shots are not yet required.

The Human Resource Department will collect and store proof of vaccination for each employee of the district. Even if a person if fully vaccinated, they will need to submit to the weekly testing if proof of vaccination is not provided, Kimberlee Brown, department director, said.

The rules only apply to school staff, not students.

Pooled COVID-19 testing will count as the weekly test, she said. If an employee misses pooled testing, they will be responsible for finding their own test and providing the result to the Human Resource Department. Employees, not the employer, are responsible for providing the negative test.

A home test can be used to satisfy the requirement, however it must either be read or administered by a member of the school staff.

Employees without proof of vaccination will be placed on unpaid leave if they go more than seven days without a negative test result, Brown said.

“One of the difficulties that I’m trying to wrap my brain around is that when an educator does not meet that credential of providing a negative test every week, we would then have to find a substitute for them,” Brown said. “But, that substitute will also have to be tested every seven days, and so with a temporary workforce that picks up assignments, as they will, doesn’t work every day, might not be in the building for the pool test that week, it just adds another level of complexity there as we try to figure out how to implement the negative test rule.”

Rapid tests could be administered at school, however there are challenges associated with this, primarily the shortage of rapid tests, Langlais said.

Employees who test positive for COVID-19 and provide documentation don’t have to be tested weekly for the next 90 days, Brown said.

If Lewiston schools were to lift the universal masking policy while the temporary standard remains, employees who have not provided proof of vaccination would also need to wear a mask while working.

The district could face fines if the rules aren’t followed.

However, Langlais said he was not yet sure what leverage the district will have to encourage people to be in compliance with the OSHA standard.

According to Maine Department of Labor Communications Manager Jessica Picard, employees can request medical or religious exemptions from the OSHA rule under other federal employment discrimination laws.

“Public sector employers will remain subject to these other laws, regardless of (Maine) Board of Occupational Safety and Health actions,” she wrote.

“One of my biggest concerns is our number one thing is keeping kids in school and we’re already at a pretty huge deficit when it comes to teachers,” School Committee member Meghan Hird, who represents Ward 6, said. “This is just adding to that potential possibility that more staff are going to potentially be either out or leaving, and then our kids will not be able to remain in school.”

Linda Scott, City Council representative on the School Committee, agreed, stating the rules will put a large burden on schools.

“I think we need to reach out to the governor’s office and figure out how they’re going to help us,” Scott said. “We’re already short staffed. How are we going to keep our staff going? How are we going to keep our kids in school? How is this even feasible?

“I understand where they’re going with it, but they have no idea the kind of pressure they’re putting on a district, the amount of money you’re going to have to spend, the amount of staff that is going to have to be used to get this going and work,” Scott said.

Lewiston school administrators initially believed that the rules governing the school became effective Jan. 10.

At the end of the discussion, John Kosinski, Maine Education Association government relations director, clarified that the OSHA rule came into effect for Maine’s private sector employees on Jan. 10. However public sector employees, including school staff, will need to wait for Maine’s Board of Occupational Safety and Health to meet  Jan. 18. The board will pass its version of the OSHA rule, which will either be the same or stricter.

All public employees in Maine will follow the rules adopted by the Board of Occupational Safety and Health, while private sector employees will follow OSHA’s rules.

“I want to proceed intelligently, but cautiously,” Langlais said. “The Supreme Court is still taking briefs on this, is my understanding, and until they make some kind of ruling, this is in play. But, they could rule that this is not legal. They could rule that is it legal, and carry it out.”


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