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What you need to know about vaccine mandates

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Update January 13, 2:53 p.m.: The United States Supreme Court is blocking President Joe Biden’s mandate that employees of organizations with at least 100 workers have to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested to prove they don’t have it.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday will take up the question of whether the federal government can require employees of organizations with at least 100 workers to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or produce proof that they have tested negative.

The special hearing concerns an emergency directive put out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that requires any workplace with 100 or more employees to require their workers be vaccinated or have them show negative tests weekly. In addition, the unvaccinated would be required to wear face masks.

What does this mean for North Carolina’s schools and community colleges? And didn’t Gov. Roy Cooper already order something similar? Here’s what you need to know.

Implications of the ruling

If the Supreme Court upholds the legitimacy of the requirements from the federal government, North Carolina school districts and community colleges with more than 100 employees would be required to adhere to it. That means employees would either need to be vaccinated or participate in weekly testing and wear a mask when indoors.

This was all supposed to take effect on Jan. 4. But according to The Washington Post, OSHA pushed the start date and “said it would not immediately issue citations for those not in compliance.”

In November 2021, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt criticized what she called government overreach on this issue, saying it is “one of the purest attacks on personal choice.” Truitt did encourage vaccination, saying it was the best way to ensure that students can stay in the classroom.

The StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit, guidance for K-12 schools published by the state Department of Health and Human Services, says “Achieving high levels of COVID-19 vaccination among students, teachers, staff, and household members is one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely resume full operations.”

Doesn’t Cooper have a similar executive order?

Cooper did do something similar with Executive Order 224, which he extended this week.

However, it only requires workers at “Cabinet agencies” to be vaccinated or tested. It also requires face masks for unvaccinated workers at these agencies. This is what the order has to say about everybody else:

“Non-Cabinet agencies, state universities, and state commissions, local governments and school systems, and private businesses and organizations are strongly encouraged, at a minimum, to enact the same measures.”

That means the decision on whether to implement these requirements is up to those entities, at least for now.

The North Carolina Department of Labor, however, is supposed to inform OSHA by Friday about its plan to mandate vaccinations for employers of 100 or more workers. That’s the first step in making the mandate a reality in North Carolina.

Jennifer Haigwood, director of communications and policy development at the state Department of Labor, said that the hearing before the Supreme Court on Friday makes that a little more complicated.

“NCDOL will monitor the hearing and we expect that the court will rule quickly, given the implementation dates set by federal OSHA,” she said in an email.

According to the state’s dashboard, over 3,000 people in North Carolina are hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Jan. 4.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.