Ohio House Health Chairman Scott Lipps. Source: Ohio General Assembly.
The following article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.
A bill introduced by a Republican lawmaker in Ohio would prohibit schools from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, one that does not currently exist and legally wouldn’t be able to take place in public institutions anyway.
The pandemic divided Ohioans and exacerbated an already growing movement against vaccinations.
“I don’t think anybody should lose their job because what we put into our bodies should be our choice,” Northeast Ohio mom Amy Martinez said.
Martinez and her kids are all unvaccinated — for not just COVID, but all education-required vaccines like MMR. To her, vaccine mandates are an infringement on personal freedom.
“No institution or governmental institution or employer should be able to tell us what we should or should not put into our bodies,” she said.
She is a registered Republican and had supported a similar yet much more strict bill that was being heard in 2021. That bill never passed.
Damon Buckwalter and his kids are all vaccinated. He believes Ohioans need to stop treating mandates like they are a new phenomenon.
“I think they should be able to mandate, just like they have a mandate for diphtheria, mumps, measles, rubella,” Buckwalter listed off.
He is a vocal supporter of the Democrats, including state Rep. Beth Liston, the only physician in the House. He agrees with her fight against the anti-vaccination movement at the Statehouse.
State Rep. Scott Lipps (R-Franklin) is siding with those against vaccinations, having introduced House Bill 739, legislation prohibiting public or chartered nonpublic schools from discriminating against someone based on their COVID vaccination status. This includes penalizing, excluding or denying any opportunity to an individual in a school.
But this bill has had some issues. OCJ/WEWS reached out to Lipps and his office early Thursday to get clarification on the language in the bill. The title of the bill states it is for “public and private” schools, however, the potential change in law would state “public or charted nonpublic” schools. The short bill also does not give examples of how it will be enforced, and that question was not answered when asked.
There are two types of private schools: Non-Chartered, Non-Tax Supported Schools (NCNT) and Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS)-Accredited Chartered Nonpublic schools. There are 514 non-chartered, while there are only 37 chartered non-publics.
Lipps and his team checked with their legal team and ended up saying that it was for just the 37 chartered non-publics. His legislative aide added that they would consider changing the title of the bill.
Another problem with the bill was stressed by Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro.
“This is a bill that seems to be a solution in search of a problem,” the educator said.
No public schools have COVID vaccine mandates, and it wouldn’t even be possible to do so because the required vaccine list can only be changed by a new law, DiMauro said. The Ohio Department of Health confirmed this publicly a week before Lipps introduced his bill.
“The State of Ohio does not mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for school attendance,” Ohio Department of Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff said in a statement. “The state’s list of required vaccines can only be changed through legislation.”
When bringing this up to the lawmaker, he told her the schools do have a legal right.
“Are we to really assume ‘NO’ school district will after the behaviors we witnessed over the past several years?” he said, in a text Thursday to OCJ/WEWS Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau. “Sounds to me like there may be some opponents that want control and don’t want us to have any say at all.”
When OCJ/WEWS followed up that educators say this is the ODH protocol, Lipps said he “didn’t agree with that opinion,” and cited a Legislative Service Commission (LSC) opinion he said proved otherwise.
Since there was no information online, OCJ/WEWS repeatedly asked both Lipps and his legislative aide for the LSC opinion, as well as reaching out to the commission itself. Lipps said his aide would be able to provide it. It was never provided.
On Friday, LSC responded to OCJ/WEWS and said they could not confirm or deny what the lawmaker’s team said. While it is certainly possible an opinion from LSC confirms the legislators’ comments, no documents are available to the public, and this document was not provided to OCJ/WEWS.
OCJ/WEWS did find a possible provision in state law that could potentially allow this, but legal experts say it can’t work.
“Except as provided in division (A)(2) of this section, the board of education of each city, exempted village, or local school district may make and enforce such rules to secure the immunization of, and to prevent the spread of communicable diseases among the pupils attending or eligible to attend the schools of the district, as in its opinion the safety and interest of the public require,” states Ohio Revised Code Section 3313.67.
The law experts said it reads as though it is only for communicable diseases that are already outlined by the state. That includes diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, Hep B, chickenpox and MCV4, once students are old enough.
The Department of Education also confirmed that school boards cannot mandate vaccines for students. Ohio Education Association said that any changes to employment requirements would have to be negotiated in a collective bargaining agreement, in all likelihood, so public school staff can’t be mandated either.
While Martinez says the bill is a good start to preempt future law changes, the bill doesn’t go far enough.
“There could be some other illness that comes about where they want to do another shot for,” she said.
She believes no one should have to get any vaccine if they don’t want to.
Buckwalter said not getting the vaccine endangers everyone who is immunocompromised. He adds that lawmakers prohibiting schools, especially nonpublic schools, from putting safety measures in for their staff and students is government overreach.
“I worry that just because we politicized public health once, it’s now irrevocable, which really it shouldn’t be,” he said.
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