Community college leaders across the country are striving to optimize the health and safety of their campuses related to Covid. While much is being done voluntarily or guided by local and state governments, the federal government is becoming increasingly involved as well. As a result, community colleges and all higher education institutions will need to stay abreast of the Biden administration’s multi-pronged approach to the pandemic, and particularly in regard to maximizing vaccinations.
Last month, President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order on Covid safety protocols aimed at federal contractors and subcontractors. The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued guidelines on this topic last month.
In August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued guidance to mitigate and prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace. The guidance provided both recommendations and affirmation of existing mandatory OSHA safety and health standards. OSHA is expected to soon release emergency temporary standards, requiring employers of 100 or more employees to impose mandatory vaccination or weekly testing for all employees.
These and other measures are part of a comprehensive Covid-19 Action Plan.
Public and private institutions as well as those with federal contracts or teaching hospitals may be subject to different provisions of the president’s action plan. How and which provisions apply to community colleges may depend on several factors, including their state.
Federal contractor vaccination mandate
Many community colleges do not have a contract with the federal government and may not be subject to the Executive Order and its requirements. To determine if a community college has a federal contract, it helps to distinguish between contracts and federal grants and cooperative agreements.
Contracts differ from grants and cooperative agreements, which given their similarity to grants will not be addressed separately here, in terms of purpose, scope of work, authorizing regulation, selection process and criteria, and results. Postsecondary grants include FSEOG, Federal Work Study, Title III and V, CCAMPIS, etc. Simply put, the purpose of federal contracts is to acquire or procure goods or services for the use of the federal government (e.g., development of new website of federal contractors).
Grants, on the other hand, are used by the awardee to dispense funds as a public good or service (i.e., improve institutional operations to help student outcomes or direct student funding).
For community colleges that fall under a federal contract, the vaccination mandate does not allow for a weekly testing alternative, although exemptions may be granted “in limited circumstances” when legally entitled. If granted, exemptions for medical reasons are to be treated as a disability accommodation.
The reach of the contractor vaccination guidance is broad, applying to several tiers of subcontractors who are parties to the contract and locations beyond where the contract-based work is conducted, including places where the affected parties are likely to be present during the contract period. The guidance also has provisions on the allowable documentation of vaccination and the proper signage and communications to contractors concerning the vaccination policy. In addition, there are directives on mask wearing and social distancing that cover all the parties as well as visitors to contract workplaces.
Any new contracts, extensions and renewals of current contracts and options exercised in contracts after October 15 are covered by the order. All covered contractor employees, unless otherwise legally entitled to an accommodation, for contracts already in performance must be fully vaccinated no later than December 8. After that, all covered contractor employees must be fully vaccinated by the first day of the period of performance.
OSHA safety and health standards
While OSHA does not have jurisdiction over state or municipal governments, including schools or public colleges and universities, its authorizing statute sets forth an approval process for state plans that cover all public employees. These plans must be “at least as effective” as OSHA’s protection of private sector employees.
Under this framework, 22 states have plans that cover both public as well as private sector employees. Another five states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have plans that cover state and local employees only. Community colleges must comply with their state health and safety regulations, which in the case of the 27 states and US territory, is with the OSHA approved plan.
Until OSHA issues the emergency standards, all entities subject to OSHA-approved plans must comply with the August 24 guidelines concerning mitigation protocols. Therefore, large employers, including community colleges with more than 100 employees, should prepare for the issuance of the vaccinations and weekly testing ETS.
Please make sure that in this changing landscape you keep abreast of the current regulations on Covid vaccinations and related protocols. The American Association of Community Colleges will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates whenever new regulations or guidance are promulgated.