After 28 years of teaching in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, Truckee High School’s Spanish teacher, Margie Seehuetter, is facing possible termination from her job.
The reasoning is clear-cut from both sides: Seehuetter has refused to receive a Covid-19 vaccine as well as the regular testing that’s required if a TTUSD employee foregoes the vaccine. To Seehuetter, who is also the Christian Crossroads Club advisor at THS, it’s a violation of her religious beliefs. For the district, it’s a straightforward order from the state.
In reaction, members of the Truckee/North Tahoe community have risen to either defend Seehuetter’s position or commend the district for its abidance of a state public order. The tension is swelling locally between those expressing fear of the virus’ impact on public safety and those determined to say what happens to their bodies. As has been mentioned by people on either side, the situation represents much more than Seehuetter’s potential dismissal.
California school districts are currently required by the Department of Public Health to have all staff members either be vaccinated against Covid-19 or undergo weekly screening tests to prove no infection. The order demanded full compliance from K-12 schools by Oct. 15. Kelli Twomey, district communications representative, said between 35 and 40 of the district’s 500-plus staff members remain unvaccinated, yet all but Seehuetter are undergoing weekly testing. In response to a comment Seehuetter shared of other unvaccinated staff members not being tested, Twomey said that was incorrect.
Opinions expressed during public comment at the Nov. 9 and Nov. 17 TTUSD board meetings straddled a line all too common these days: Whether or not individuals believe what mainstream media and scientific consensus is saying about protection provided by the Covid-19 vaccination and its safety for the human body.
Community members in favor of the public health department order say that vaccinating all attendees of public and private schools is for a greater good, and that those who are opposed to such requirements have the option to homeschool their children.
Malissa Cruz, both the site supervisor for STEPP programs at Sierra High School and president of the California School Employees Association’s Truckee chapter, spoke up during public comment at the Nov. 9 meeting, saying those expressing their anger with the TTUSD board decision to dismiss Seehuetter are misdirected; the decision to require vaccination or testing comes from the state, not the local school board. Cruz, who had Seehuetter as an eighth grade teacher, later told Moonshine Ink that while she supports those who stand up for what they believe in, the vaccination requirement is an important safeguard.
“Everybody should be able to come to work and feel safe and be able to do their job,” said Cruz, who reports that she is vaccinated.
Those who spoke during public comment at the meetings and oppose the TTUSD vaccination or testing requirement pointed to Covid’s minimal effects on children, deaths of close friends who received the Covid vaccine, and a recent Freedom of Information Act request response out of the Centers for Disease Control. The latter item, released Nov. 5 in response to a request made by Siri & Glimstad LLP on behalf of the Informed Consent Action Network, revealed that the CDC does not collect “any documented case of an individual who: (1) never received a Covid-19 vaccine; (2) was infected with Covid-19 once, recovered, and then later became infected again; and (3) transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to another person when reinfected.”
Some, including a few who spoke during school board public comment, have interpreted the CDC response to mean that unvaccinated individuals who have been reinfected with Covid have never transmitted the virus.
“The CDC has admitted there is zero evidence of someone with natural immunity spreading Covid post-recovery,” said Amber Stockham, referencing the CDC response, during the Nov. 17 public comment.
Many also commented on what they see as a violation of Seehuetter’s rights to religious and personal beliefs. Twomey said there are no active lawsuits against the school district over such concerns.
Seehuetter told the Ink she sought information for a religious exemption prior to the 2021/22 school year, corresponding with Joan Zappettini, TTUSD human resources director, about the matter. Zappettini informed Seehuetter that the district is required to have all its staff members either vaccinated or tested weekly; exemptions based on personal beliefs are not allowed.
“We’re following the state health order which is that an employee has to either show proof of vaccination or they can choose to get tested weekly,” shared Twomey. “We provide testing on site for these employees.”
Other school districts in California, like the Los Angeles Unified School District, are technically allowing personal exemptions, though an LA Times article said those requesting exemption are being asked to either take leaves of absence or transferring to remote learning and thus still complying with the state public health order.
Meanwhile, two school district boards in San Bernardino County, located just east of Los Angeles, issued formal statements against vaccine mandates. Lucerne Valley Unified School District’s board took a stand against mandatory Covid shots in its resolution adopted Oct. 14 with detailed reasoning centered on the science and legalities. Apple Valley Unified School District followed suit with a resolution on Oct. 25 stating it will not implement a vaccine mandate if one is imposed by the state or local health officers. Western Placer, Chico, Durham, and many more unified school districts have echoed these motions, though all are more focused on the potential requirement of student vaccination, which is not yet in effect. An Oct. 1 press release by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced the intent to add Covid-19 vaccinations to the list of required immunizations for students who attend public or private school, but no official law or mandate has been put into effect nor further information released by state officials.
Back in TTUSD, Seehuetter wrote a letter explaining her reasoning for not wanting to be vaccinated or tested and submitted it to the district, hoping the administration would allow her to continue teaching under certain compromises.
“I wrote my letter, and it was dated August 24, before school started,” she told Moonshine Ink. “I hand-delivered it to the district office. I had eight bible verses in it. It said, ‘It is my sincere belief that … once I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart, the holy spirit now dwells within me. It is my compass in deciding what I feel is true to me … [It is] my sincere belief that God created this amazing immune system in our bodies. And I have the antibodies to show you.’”
Seehuetter said her letter also included accommodations she was willing to make — that she would cover her mouth but not her nose and that she’d provide an antibodies test to prove her body’s immunity to the virus. She does not want to submit the regular Covid tests because she sees her natural immunity as effective.
“I don’t feel comfortable testing when I know that I’ve already had Covid before,” she said, adding that if she does have any flu-like symptoms she’ll test in that case, but not on a regular basis without medical need.
To date, Seehuetter says she has not received a response to the letter from the district. She said the administration believes it’s addressed the letter by giving her notice of dismissal, but she is still seeking a direct response to her suggested compromise.
Seehuetter contracted Covid-19 over the 2020/21 winter break, losing her sense of smell and taste. She said she tested positive and turned in her results to the district at that time. Since the contraction, Seehuetter has taken an antibody test that showed she has antibodies to Covid-19. Regardless of whether she contracted the virus or not, Seehuetter says she would’ve remained unvaccinated because of her own conviction, though if she hadn’t already contracted Covid, she would have submitted to the weekly testing. For what it’s worth, she added, she has always followed the requirement for teachers to test for tuberculosis every three years because “that has gone through the legislative channels.”
On Oct. 26, Seehuetter was placed on unpaid administrative leave and a substitute teacher took over her lessons.
Seehuetter attended both the Nov. 9 and Nov. 17 board meetings. During the former, she requested that the closed session item regarding her continued employment be moved to open session. The request didn’t happen, Twomey said, because the Brown Act prohibits agendas changing after being posted.
Seehuetter mentioned bible verse Luke 6:27 during her conversation with Moonshine, which states in part, “do good to those who hate you … pray for those who hurt you.”
“It’s still really hard for me to accept this bible verse, because if my job is taken away from me completely, that means I walk in a different direction,” Seehuetter said. “But I know that God honors my heart. My true hope is that they would accept my religious exemption and natural immunity and look at my antibodies test and I get back into my classroom.”
Several former students of Seehuetter spoke up during public comment about the good work she’s done as a teacher.
Gabe Deiro, THS class of 2015 and former student, said of her, “She did a great job and she’s been a great teacher.”
Liam Palmer, a born-and-raised Truckee local though not a student of Seehuetter, noted, “Working with teenagers, children, middle schoolers, is probably one of the hardest jobs in the world. She’s dedicated three decades of her life to a noble and humble position.”
Luke Sorter, who attended Christian Crossroads Club with Seehuetter, said, “She’s almost been like a second mom. She’s helped me through many struggles, and she’s been there. She’s taught me who I am. She’s been a guiding factor in what I believe and who I want to be as a man.”
Mixed in with the compliments were insults toward the board and school district during the Nov. 9 school board meeting, where Twomey said she counted 78 people who showed up in support of Seehuetter.
Out of the board room, young attendees decided to mark up a district office bathroom during the Nov. 9 board meeting: “We have on camera two … young males who went into the men’s room and vandalized it during this meeting,” said Kim Szczurek, board president. “That was part of this group. And we have them on camera, and we will pursue with the Truckee PD, figuring out who they are.”
Twomey gave specific detail about the vandalism, saying “No Vax” was spelled out by wet toilet paper on the wall and wet wads of toilet paper were sticking to the ceiling. Seehuetter and others deny that the act qualifies as vandalism.
Szczurek shared the above statement and more prior to public comment at the Nov. 17 meeting, referencing the misinformation being spread in reaction to Seehuetter’s dismissal — she explained that there’s no active vaccine mandate for teachers and staff, it’s an either/or situation, and that the school district is simply following a required health order.
“I felt really sad to have to put the rules of civility on the chairs here today,” Szczurek said, referencing TTUSD’s nine tools of civility. “That was adopted by this community about 15 years ago when people weren’t being very nice to each other. And honestly, it feels like we’re right back there where people aren’t being very nice to us.”
After receiving notice of dismissal on Nov. 12, Seehuetter turned in her computer and keys on Nov. 16. She’s in the middle of a 30-day period where she can appeal the decision.
“For a certificated employee who has been recommended for termination,” explained Twomey in an email, “they have the opportunity, within 30 days from being served with the intent to terminate, to request a hearing. The hearing would be in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ) … Termination is final if at the end of the 30 days the employee chooses not to request a hearing or after the hearing the ALJ determination is to uphold the termination.”
Seehuetter said at this time she does not have legal representation, though she’s in touch with people who have offered services. “I know I have a right to a hearing, but information and the mandates coming down the pike are changing,” she said, referencing the ever-increasing amount of school districts refusing potential vaccination mandates. “… I’m just waiting it out. Who knows where we’re going to be.”
In her time off, Seehuetter said she’s been able to reflect on why the situation is happening to her. “We know that this is not a religious exemption issue; this a choice, a freedom of choice issue,” she explained. “Maybe I’m just ahead of the game because there are teachers that are not vaccinated who will leave the profession. We know parents are going to pull their kids are if the forced vaccination is there … Maybe my position is to go ahead so others can lean on me for support when their turn comes.”
She says she will not get vaccinated against Covid-19. She’s unsure if she will retire from teaching or not.
As of publication, 67.2% of California’s population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and 8.5% are partially vaccinated. On average, 187,507 doses are administered each day across the state.
In a press conference on Nov. 22, Gov. Newsom spoke from a vaccine clinic about “doing the important work that we’re here to promote, and that is the life-saving opportunity to get these booster shots, to deal with waning immunity, [and] continue to encourage people that haven’t gotten a shot to get a shot.”
“Today,” Newsom added, “we lay claim to having the lowest positivity rate in the United States of America, at 1.9% … That’s because of the work that you are doing, that’s because of the good work that all of you have been doing for many, many months, to put a lid on this virus, to get us through this winter.”