THE DALLES — On Dec. 16, the North Wasco County School Board voted on the recommended dismissal of a second North Wasco County School District faculty member.
During the virtual board meeting, the school board held a public pre-dismissal hearing in which they heard the Superintendent Carolyn Bernal’s recommendation for the dismissal of The Dalles High School teacher Erich Dorzab for insubordination and neglect of duty for not complying with Oregon Administrative Rule (OAR) 333-019-1030, which required that all teachers, school staff and volunteers show proof of being fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, 2021, or be approved of a medical or religious exemption. The OAR outlines the requirement for schools who grant exceptions to take “reasonable steps” to protect unvaccinated staff and students from contracting or spreading the virus.
Prior to the reading of the superintendent’s letter to Dorzab stating the reasons for the recommendation for dismissal, the district attorney for personnel related matters for the school board, Nancy Hungerford, explained the state requirement in detail.
“In this particular case, these requirements are ones that were set by the Oregon Health Authority, they are currently enforced,” Hungerford said. “This is the force of law ... this is not a requirement that you have a choice about.”
Hungerford informed the board that the school district could be open to “claims that would total hundreds of thousands of dollars,” as their liability insurance would not cover instances where “there might be an exposure that resulted in some sort of injury or even death of a staff member or a student,” if they were in violation of and/or did not enforce the OAR.
“You have a responsibility as those authorities who direct the school district to maintain compliance with the law,” explained Hungerford.
In the hearing, Director of Human Resources Brian Schimel read the superintendent’s letter to Dorzab, dated Nov. 15, informing him of her recommendation for dismissal. According to the letter, in September Dorzab submitted a request for an exception to the OAR requirement to be fully vaccinated based on religious grounds, which was granted the next day. In October, Dorzab was informed of the district’s requirements that district employees who hold an exception status must wear KN95 masks and submit to weekly testing for COVID-19.
A Nov. 22 press release issued by North Wasco County School District 21 states that the wearing of a KN95 mask and weekly testing for COVID-19 by unvaccinated employees was a “negotiated agreement” entered into between the district and the Oregon Educators Association (OEA) “where it was agreed that any unvaccinated members will wear a KN95 mask at all times and be tested weekly to meet the section of the OAR where it states that schools granting an exception to the vaccination requirement must take reasonable steps to ensure that unvaccinated teachers, school staff and volunteers are protected from contracting and spreading COVID-19.”
According to the press release, “A discussion was had with each and every exempted staff member so that they may make an informed decision regarding their personal choice to comply with these terms of employment.”
According to the letter read by Schimel, in November, Dorzab informed the district that he “would not participate in the discriminatory practice of a weekly COVID test and wearing of a KN95 mask,” and Dorzab was informed that his decision could result in disciplinary action, “up to and including dismissal,” and was called to appear, with council, in a pre-termination hearing on Nov. 12, where he once again confirmed he would not comply with the requirements.
During the hearing, Dorzab was allotted 10 minutes to speak to the board in response to the reasons for dismissal outlined in the superintendent’s letter. “I am arguing that these mandates aren’t legal,” said Dorzab in his public statement to the board. “Labeling a termination a secondary consequence does not make refusal a choice, it makes it coercion.”
Dorzab also said the accommodations of wearing a KN95 mask and submitting to weekly testing for COVID-19 for unvaccinated staff are “hazardous and discriminatory.”
“The nasal swab test contains ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen,” said Dorzab, “Why would I put something into my body that causes cancer? The KN95 masks lower oxygen levels, creating a hazardous work environment.” Dorzab goes on to state that, regarding the requirement that unvaccinated employees must wear a KN95 mask, “my compliance to this would point out the fact that I have a religious exemption and am unvaccinated. That’s discrimination … this is discriminatory to make me wear a mask that announces my religion and medical status as a condition of my employment.”
An Associated Press article published on March 31 states that “Ethylene oxide is a gas commonly used to sterilize medical equipment … While it is listed by federal agencies as a carcinogen with long-term exposure, experts say the gas is used only in small amounts to sterilize COVID testing kits and would not present a cancer hazard.”
After final questions and clarifications were made, Director Judy Richardson made a motion to approve the recommendation of dismissal, with Director David Jones seconding.
“I never ran for school board with the intention of dismissing anyone,” said Richardson. “I ran because I was inspired by the deep dedication of our staff and teachers, especially during the pandemic … siding with our kids and their safety is what’s right, and dismissing this teacher is not only the right thing to do as Nancy Hungerford outlined, he’s giving us no other option.”
“I find that in our community, people think that we release a teacher because they’re forced to get the vaccine, which is absolutely not true,” said Director Brian Stevens. “There is an exemption in place, religious or medical, to my knowledge now 100% of those have all been approved one way or the other. This teacher did get his religious exemption and isn’t willing to wear a mask, so for me this is a really easy decision to make.”
Directors Dawn Rasmussen, Rebecca Thistlethwaite, and Board Chair Jose Aparicio echoed similar sentiments in their own statements. “We are responsible for the whole, not just a few people,” said Rasmussen. “We have very clear science shown, and the legal ramifications that we must follow as a school board, so he’s lot leaving us with many other opportunities.”
“(I) want to point out that the U.S. just surpassed 800,000 deaths,” Thistlethwaite said. “This is a serious virus, to be taken seriously.”
“The reality is, while we have to make tough decisions, we are those who were elected to make those tough decisions whether we like them or not,” said Aparicio, “We all have our personal opinions on various things, but when it comes to decisions on behalf of the district, our north star always should be what’s best for the kids of the entire district and our staff.”
In a unanimous vote, the superintendent’s recommendation for dismissal was approved. Dorzab is the second faculty member to be approved for dismissal after Wayne Gibson in the Nov. 18 School Board meeting.
The entire school board meeting is available for viewing on the District 21 Media Channel on Youtube.