Public school employees in a majority of states will be required to be vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19 under a new federal rule for workplaces with more than 100 employees.
Under the rule, published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Thursday, millions of workers will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4 or get tested for the virus weekly. Employers that fail to comply could face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation.
The move comes as states debate the balance between personal liberty and community health. Schools have been at the core of that fight as they navigate divided public opinion over how to keep classrooms open and reduce virus risk.
Here’s what schools need to know.
Where does the vaccine-or-test mandate apply to school employees?
The new rule, designed to raise the nation’s overall vaccination rate, applies to private employers around the country and to public employers in 26 states and two territories that have state-level workplace safety plans approved by OSHA, according to a fact sheet. That includes public school districts, an agency spokesperson told Education Week when President Joe Biden announced plans for the rule in September.
The rule will also apply to private schools nationwide if they fall above the 100-employee threshold.
But it’s unclear how many teachers and school employees will be newly vaccinated as a result of the mandate. Public polling and information from teachers unions suggest educator vaccination rates are already higher than those of the general public. Eighty seven percent of teachers surveyed in July by the EdWeek Research Center said they had already been vaccinated.
Also, the list of jurisdictions where public employees are covered by the rule includes 11 states and territories that have already moved on their own to either require teachers to be vaccinated or offer the choice between vaccination and weekly testing, according to a tracker compiled by Education Week. Those jurisdictions are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Washington, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.
The testing requirement could be met with resistance in some Republican-led states.
Four states with state-level OSHA plans—Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, and Tennessee—currently prohibit school districts from requiring teacher vaccinations, bans that may be overridden by the new federal rule.
OSHA made it clear Thursday that its rule should override any conflicting state policies. The agency “intends to preempt any State or local requirements that ban or limit an employer from requiring vaccination, face covering, or testing,” it said in a fact sheet.
In Texas and Florida, where governors have taken the most aggressive stances against vaccine mandates and school-based precautions, workplaces are not covered by state plans, so the rule will not apply to public schools.
More than two dozen Republican attorneys general said they plan to legally challenge the administration’s authority to issue the rule, the Associated Press reported.
OSHA officials said they had authority to draft the rules under federal law meant to protect employees from an “imminent health hazard.”
How will schools enforce the rule?
The rule requires employers, including schools and school districts in qualifying states, to create and implement a plan for requiring and verifying employee vaccinations.
Some education groups have said state and federal mandates for COVID-19 precautions help remove the pressure from local leaders facing a divided public.
It was unclear how OSHA planned to enforce the rules, the Associated Press reported. A senior administration official said the agency would target employers if it gets complaints. Some labor experts have expressed skepticism that federal regulators will be able to effectively monitor the implementation of such a broad rule that applies to millions of workers.
By the Jan. 4 deadline, school employees in qualifying states must either receive two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson or face weekly testing.
Starting Dec. 5, the rule will require covered employers to provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects.
Workers will be able to ask for exemptions on medical or religious grounds.
How will school testing work for unvaccinated employees?
Employees who remain unvaccinated must submit a negative test at least once a week and wear face masks at work.
OSHA says employers are not required to pay for those tests unless they have already agreed to do so under collective bargaining agreements with groups like teachers unions. However, the Biden administration has provided funding for school-based COVID-19 testing for teachers and students, and it has said federal relief aid may be used for such purposes.
The rule requires employees to “promptly notify” employers of a positive COVID-19 test and to remain out of the workplace until they meet recommended criteria for returning to work.
How will the vaccine-or-test rule affect existing school work force concerns?
As Education Week has reported, districts have faced a host of pandemic-era staffing concerns that have strained everything from student busing to school lunches.
More broadly, some business groups and Republican politicians have expressed concern that new requirements may further strain difficulties with employee recruitment and retention by leading some vaccine-hesitant employees to quit altogether.
The Biden administration says those fears are overblown. President Joe Biden has promoted the policy by visiting employers that have voluntarily implemented their own vaccine requirements in advance of the federal rule. Those private requirements have helped contribute to an adult vaccination rate of about 70 percent nationwide.
For example Tyson Foods said 96 percent of its U.S. workforce was fully vaccinated a week before a deadline it set in August, the Associated Press reported.
But there has been some resistance. Employees in some states have protested a separate federal vaccine rule that applies to federal contractors.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the rule.
“These common sense actions will save thousands of lives and curb hospital stays that are not only devastating for patients but harrowing for the frontline workers charged with their care,” she said in a statement.
The Associated Press, Wire Service contributed to this article.