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Head Start vaccine mandate on pause; DPS to move special education services to Hagen Building

As federal litigation regarding the vaccine mandate for Head Start programs is preliminarily enjoined in several states including North Dakota, Dickinson Public Schools braces the next month with caution.

Dickinson Public Schools Superintendent Marcus Lewton is shown.
Dickinson Public Schools Superintendent Marcus Lewton addresses the school board during its monthly meeting Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.
(Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)

DICKINSON — On Sept. 9, 2021, President Joe Biden introduced a new requirement for Head Start programs aimed at supporting the health and safety of children, but a federal district judge quickly blocked the vaccine mandate with a preliminary injunction on Jan. 1 following constitutional challenges brought by North Dakota as well as 23 other states, including: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The injunction also currently blocks the mandate’s requirement that Head Start students age 2 or older wear masks while indoors or in close contact with others.

According to the ruling, Head Start, Early Head Start and Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant recipients in those 24 states are not required to comply with the Interim Final Rule pending future developments in the litigation.

Prior to the injunction, during the December Dickinson Public School Board meeting, the subject was addressed and plans moved forward that all Head Start staff, contractors and volunteers had to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 31, 2022, in accordance with the mandate. Further the board determined that universal masking for all individuals 2 years of age and older would be a requirement.

In a statement to The Dickinson Press, DPS Superintendent Marcus Lewton walked back that requirement in light of the ongoing litigation on the matter noting that, “Dickinson Public Schools does not require any employee of the district to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. This move guarantees our employees are allowed the same choice and freedoms regardless of the building they work in.”

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Lewton added, "Our partnership with the Dickinson Early Childhood Head Start program has been an amazing collaboration of community services over the last 30 years. This transition will allow some new flexibility for our staff and students and a cost-saving to our district. We look forward to continuing to find ways to collaborate with the Head Start program in the future."

In other agenda items, the DPS Board reviewed the approval to move forward with transferring children ages 3 to 5, who receive special education services, to the Hagen Building — effective Feb. 1.

Currently, those children are serviced by seven full-time DPS teachers at the Early Childhood Center (ECC)/Head Start in collaboration with ECC, according to school documents. The move will affect approximately 75 students, Lewton noted, highlighting some additional CDC guidance on quarantines.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed their guidance for quarantining from 10 to five days depending on different scenarios — vaccinated versus unvaccinated," Lewton said, adding that the school district has adopted those same guidelines and received documentation from the North Dakota Department of Health on how to follow through with that process.

Lewton highlighted the importance of ensuring the continued safety of students who attend public schools.

“We have an obligation to our students, and this move ensures that our special education services will not be disrupted regardless of the federal vaccination mandate challenge outcome,” Lewton said. “Moving the special education program to the Hagen building makes certain that our classrooms will remain open, and our staff will be able to continue to provide services to our students despite their vaccination status.”

In other school business, the DPS Board approved the hiring of up to four additional certified positions as necessary to accommodate the increased growth for the 2022-2023 school year. Lewton added that in order to stay ahead of the curve, with an expected increase in elementary students, the move is necessary.

The motion was made by board member Michelle Orton, followed by a second from Vice President Kim Schwartz. In a roll-call vote, the school board unanimously approved the motion 5-0.

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Dickinson Public School Board Member Michelle Orton is shown.
During a monthly meeting Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, Michelle Orton, a member of the Dickinson Public School Board, comments on the success of the Dickinson High School Academy Expo that took place in December.
(Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)

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