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Willmar Public Schools enforcing state's vaccine requirements, some employees placed on leave

Some employees of Willmar Public Schools have been placed on administrative leave after refusing to provide proof of vaccination or to wear a face mask at work.

Willmar Public Schools sign at the Willmar Education and Arts Center
A file photo of the Willmar Public Schools sign at the Willmar Education and Arts Center, where the district's administration offices are located.
Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo
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WILLMAR — Some employees of Willmar Public Schools were placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday after they did not comply with a new vaccine policy adopted Monday by the Willmar School Board.

Superintendent Jeff Holm said Tuesday evening the number of employees placed on leave was less than a handful in each school building, though he didn’t know an exact number yet.

The district has more than 800 employees, and the total placed on leave was probably less than two dozen, he said.

Holm said the policy requires every employee to do one of three things — to show proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 , to wear a mask while at work if not vaccinated and be tested periodically or to apply for an exemption for health or religious reasons.

The policy was recommended by the Minnesota School Boards Association and approved by the district’s legal counsel.

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Holm said he had sent messages about the policy a number of times, beginning when it was first introduced last year.

“They’ve been given this information for quite some time,” he said, and he let them know last week when the state notified employers that the policy would be enforced beginning Jan. 10.

Tuesday, building administrators were asked to speak with employees who had not yet complied with the policy by either applying for an exemption, providing proof of vaccination or wearing a mask.

Those who said they were not going to comply were placed on administrative leave and asked to leave the building. The employees will receive due process as each situation will be investigated according to district disciplinary policies, Holm said.

Principals indicated to him that the conversations were peaceful, and most employees left peacefully and without incident, Holm said. He heard of one case in which an employee asked to be escorted to the door by an administrator.

“I am not choosing to do this,” Holm said. “It’s something we’ve been told to do” by the Minnesota School Boards Association and by the district’s legal counsel.

“Employees don’t just get to choose to comply” with district policies, he said.

The district could face administrative fines or liability issues if the policy weren't enforced, he said.

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Holm said it was a stressful, emotional situation for everyone — “It saddens all of us who are dealing with it.”

The vaccination policy is similar to those being enforced by local governments around Minnesota under orders from the Minnesota Occupational Health and Safety Administration. The Minnesota OSHA policy applies to employers with more than 100 employees.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Friday on the rule and a similar one that applies to health care providers.

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In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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