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Multiple teachers at the Santee Community Schools district have resigned because of a local mandate requiring them to get vaccinated for COVID-19 in time for the upcoming school year.

During its Monday meeting, the district board of education approved nine resignations, many of which were solely because of the mandate, said Superintendent Todd Chessmore.

The Santee Sioux Nation tribal council passed the guideline on June 2, requiring all employees within the boundaries of the reservation to get fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or resign. The mandate officially goes into effect on Thursday, July 1, Chessmore said.

Tara Meyer had been employed with the district for two years as a high school science teacher. As a South Dakota resident, she would drive about 110 miles round-trip every day for her job.

Her resignation was one of the several approved on Monday. Meyer said she couldn’t get the vaccine because of personal health reasons, but she didn’t want to leave.

“It was a terrible decision to make. It was so hard because I do love it there,” she said. “I wanted to respectfully resign, with no fighting over contracts or anything like that. But, I think there will be more (resignations) to follow.”

One former staff member who resigned expressed disappointment in the fact that employment contracts were signed in early spring; however, by the time school employees were given the ultimatum last week, most job opportunities at other schools were already filled.

“It's been a very stressful time because there were mandates in town and no one ever suggested it would affect the school,” said the former employee, who requested to remain anonymous because of future job employment. “Teachers had signed contracts back in March and April, and it wasn’t in the contract to have to do this. No one had dreamt this would happen.”

The tribal council previously passed a mandate in April that only required tribal employees to get vaccinated, but it was changed to all employees within the reservation on June 2.

The guideline comes after a history of increased COVID-19 restrictions within the reservation that were put in place to be proactive in curbing virus spread. The Santee Sioux Nation had implemented travel restrictions and road checkpoints in 2020 for anyone entering or leaving the reservation.

Chessmore said there are now some staffing concerns, but he is confident the district “will make sure to provide a quality education.”

“At this point and time, we are fairly comfortable to meet our staffing needs next year,” he said. “(The resignations) have affected it some, but we have a very resilient staff here with great people up and down the line — we’re going to take whatever is handed to us.”

An administrative team will present what staffing will look like for the 2021-22 school year at the July board of education meeting, according to Chessmore’s report on Monday.

The former staff member said the reservation “has lost more people to the mandate than to COVID-19.” The exact number of employees who have resigned since the mandate was announced is unknown; the tribal council didn’t respond to comment as of Friday.

“I didn’t want to leave,” the staff member said. “I just love this school and area and the kids are the ones who are going to hurt from this. It's going to affect the kids who are losing some of those teachers.”

Chessmore said he’s optimistic about the upcoming school year and that while he’s sad for those leaving, he’s excited for those who are staying.

“This is a bump in the road, but it's a bump, not a canyon,” he said. “We are going to navigate it and are optimistic about the future.”

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