The COVID-19 vaccination rate among school district employees in Washington state is approaching 90% — and most bigger school districts, even outside of the state’s western, politically liberal core, beat that average.

That’s a rate nearly 20 percentage points higher than the state population at large and close to the rate of other employees subject to Gov. Jay Inslee’s government worker vaccine mandate. Currently, about 70% of Washingtonians ages 12 and above are fully vaccinated.

Washington’s vaccine mandate for school staff is one of the most stringent in the nation, and the state’s superintendent praised the outcomes in a news briefing last week.

But even as they outpace the vaccine rate in hesitant counties, new data still shows gaps in vaccinated school workers outside Washington state’s major population centers. Many still have their jobs through religious exemptions.

These were among the first workers to get access to the inoculations. The decision to vaccinate school staff first was rooted in the concern that their jobs may include close interactions with lots of people, scores of whom were too young for protections via vaccine.

Under the mandate, each of Washington’s 300 school districts acted as an independent arbiter for exemption requests.

Advertising

Two-thirds of the state’s 300 school districts gave religious exemptions to 10 percent or more of their employees. By percentages — the only way the state released this data, which it said was to protect employee privacy — the districts with the highest share of religious opt-outs are quite small.

The Onion Creek School District, a rural, one-school district in north Stevens County, gave a faith-based exemption to almost 60% of its 17 employees, while only 2% of more than 7,600 employees at Seattle Public Schools received one.

Reykdal said he anticipated some school districts would be more lenient than others given vaccine hesitancy in some areas of the state. For example, only 31% of residents in Stevens County are vaccinated.

A spokesperson for the state education department, or the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), said the agency doesn’t plan to intervene unless it suspects a school district may have broken federal or state law in approving exemptions.

Out of about 155,000 state school workers, fewer than 500 were were reported as noncompliant, meaning they made no effort toward getting a shot or requesting an exemption by the Oct. 18 deadline. But that number could be an undercount. Since school districts weren’t required to report their numbers to the state until after the deadline, some districts may have omitted people they fired or lost over the mandate.

Statewide, as of late October, 1,887 state employees were terminated or left their positions over the mandate that they be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs, according to the Office of Financial Management.

Advertising

The counties with the most vaccinated school employees are generally the ones with the highest percentage of vaccinated residents. San Juan Island County leads the state in both its share of vaccinated residents and school workers, with 94% of its school employees vaccinated, on average.

King County came in at number four, with an average of 93%. The Enumclaw School District, with an overall vaccination rate of 78%, was the lowest in the county; that district awarded a religious exemption to more than a fifth of its employees.

Pend Oreille County, where 59% of school workers are vaccinated on average, came in last. An average of 37% of school workers there have a religious exemption.

Seven school districts and one charter school, out of the state’s 300, did not report vaccination data to the state: the Damman and Easton school districts in Kittitas County, the Ephrata and Moses Lake school districts in Grant County, the Evergreen School District in Stevens County, Glenwood School District in Klickitat County, the South Bend School District in Pacific County, and the Innovation Charter School in Walla Walla County.

OSPI also didn’t ask for the vaccination status of contractors, who are still subject to the mandate but not officially on school district payrolls.

One school system so far, the Eatonville School District, has received an official warning for not complying with the mandate. If School Board leaders fail to respond within the time frame set by OSPI, the agency will reduce the district’s funding.