See more of the story

St. Paul Public Schools employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly beginning Oct. 15, the school board unanimously decided Friday.

The board's vote came amid a surge of cases caused by the more contagious delta variant.

Board Member Jim Vue, citing the buzz and energy he felt visiting his son's school Thursday and the fact his very presence on the board was due to the COVID death of board Chairwoman Marny Xiong last year, said the vote was a "no-brainer."

"The cost of not doing it is too high," he said.

Superintendent Joe Gothard recommended Tuesday that Minnesota's second-largest district join the growing number of school systems nationwide adopting a vaccine-or-testing requirement. But his team held out the possibility it might seek a delay in the mandate's Oct. 15 deadline when the board met again to vote on the proposal Friday.

Instead, district administrators decided to move ahead with Oct. 15 by calling for an honor system with employees on the vaccination question. Instead of showing proof that they have been fully vaccinated, staff members will fill out a form declaring whether they've been inoculated and then be subject to potential audits for the information later.

Board Members Yusef Carrillo, John Brodrick and Zuki Ellis said they supported the approach because it was based on trust. Board Member Chauntyll Allen said she hoped employees who have chosen not to be vaccinated for religious or other reasons, and who submit to weekly tests, instead, are respected and do not feel pressured to get the shots.

A vaccine-or-testing requirement had the backing of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, but it also could threaten to worsen a labor shortage that had the district struggling in August to fill nearly 300 jobs before a new school year begins Thursday.

St. Paul has nearly 7,000 employees, plus 1,500 contract workers and volunteers who regularly interact with kids — and who will be subject to the new requirement. The latter includes 260 of the district's 297 bus drivers.

"I'm extremely concerned," Jackie Turner, the district's chief operations officer, said Friday of the requirement's potential impact on securing outside help in a competitive job market.

Said Gothard, "There's also a concern about COVID being spread uncontrollably."

Ramsey County is in a high-risk category for the virus as established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), board members were told this week. The county recorded 804 cases, or 146 per 100,000 people, from Aug. 22-28, and the test positivity rate exceeded 10%, according to CDC data.

Dr. Pete Dehnel of the Twin Cities Medical Society also urged the school board to enact a vaccine requirement, saying the delta variant had yet to peak in Minnesota.

"All avenues of protection available to us must be pursued," he said.

St. Paul is the second and by far the largest district in the state to require vaccines or testing. Last week, Intermediate School District 287, a cooperative serving about 1,000 high-needs students in Hennepin County, said it will require staff members to participate in weekly COVID-19 testing or show proof of vaccination.

According to the publication Education Week, Washington, Oregon and Puerto Rico require teachers to be vaccinated, and six states and the District of Columbia require vaccination or regular testing. At least eight states have prohibited districts from requiring teachers to be vaccinated, the publication has reported.

St. Paul has yet to tally the potential costs of the requirement, which will be reviewed before the start of each academic quarter. The district also is requiring all students, staff and visitors to wear masks in schools.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109