Corinne Barrett was in the middle of grading assignments when a colleague messaged her: “It’s happening.”
Within hours of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Tuesday announcement that school employees and child-care workers could join the ranks of the vaccinated, Barrett, a P.E. and health teacher in the Bellevue School District, hatched a plan.
Before sunrise Wednesday, she was fifth in line outside a walk-in vaccine clinic operated by Sea Mar Community Health Centers in South Seattle. By 8 a.m., she had her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
“It was an early morning, but it was a great morning,” said Barrett, who was joined in line with a number of other educators. “The staff at the clinic shared our joy.”
One teacher down, tens of thousands more to go.
Since the news flooded their social-media feeds and work emails, school employees and child-care workers shared stories of scouring the internet and consulting their friend groups in search of appointments. By Wednesday morning, a 37,000-member Facebook group set up to help Washington state residents find vaccination sites was flooded with dozens of posts from educators seeking help. Kaiser Permanente, a common insurance provider for school-district employees, reported a “significant increase” in calls inquiring about the vaccine.
Throughout the next month, the state and federal governments plan to help with programs to speed up vaccinations for education and child-care workers, who number about 260,000 in Washington state.
The goal: Ease the path for reopening schools in dozens of districts and provide relief to a struggling child-care sector that has lost scores of clients in the pandemic. State health officials believe they can answer President Joe Biden’s call to provide a dose of the vaccine to every educator by the end of March.
For workers in these industries, vaccines are a welcome reprieve, even if the path to these goals is more complicated than inoculation.
“I’m busting my butt right now, and I would much rather be busting my butt in my building than at home,” said Jordan Frost, a high-school teacher in Issaquah. Frost is hopeful that the news will help solidify his district’s plans to bring back older students in a hybrid model so he can spend time with his students who are graduating seniors.
But broadly, it’s unclear how much or how quickly the vaccinations will affect reopening in districts that are still mostly remote or bargaining over in-person instruction. Some teachers unions, while celebrating the development, stressed vaccines were not the only factor in their discussions.
There are still “concerns around the lack of accommodations for members who have medical conditions,” said Fiona Engebretson, president of the teachers union in Battle Ground in Clark County.
Some educators, including Barrett say they are still concerned about other safety issues involved with returning to school buildings. As Bellevue School District and its teachers union negotiate a return to school for secondary students, Barrett says she trusts the bargaining team will come up with appropriate procedures and follow the science.
Brontë Neel, a high-school teacher in Seattle, said the vaccine news made her feel more hopeful than she has in a while, but that she believes students should also have a chance to get vaccinated before returning. Two of her students caught the virus and are experiencing long-term effects, she said.
Depending on the vaccine they receive and when they receive it, it could be anywhere from four to seven weeks after receiving one or two doses before recipients build up immunity to the virus. If districts wait until all employees have their shots, only a few weeks would remain in the school year, said Judith Malmgren, an epidemiologist affiliated with the University of Washington.
“All of this depends on how quickly the vaccine can be mobilized for the teachers,” she wrote in an email. “A lot of vaccine is already on reserve for second shots.”
“We definitely think that schools should make every attempt to reopen this school year, and the primary reason for that is that it sets the stage for the next school year, said Katy Payne, a spokesperson for the state education department. “Even if it’s for a short while, it’s getting students and staff practiced for what it means to be in school, wearing masks and getting the kinks and issues worked out so we have the whole summer and the fall to work out.”
Payne said parents shouldn’t expect schools to return to their traditional format this year. Schools are still subject to social-distancing requirements, and the size of buildings will still require districts to use a hybrid model.
Deeann Burtch Puffert, the CEO of Child Care Aware of Washington, was in the middle of a virtual meeting from her home office in West Seattle when President Joe Biden tweeted that he wanted “every educator, school staff member and child-care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of this month.”
She began receiving a flurry of email and text notifications from across the nonprofit child-care resource and referral program’s statewide network. “By then I was watching the president’s announcement on YouTube and dancing in my office with joy that this was finally happening,” Burtch Puffert said.
While her agency hasn’t been advocating for child-care workers to jump the line of eligibility for coronavirus vaccinations, the organization has been in favor of a pathway of protocols to allow child- and day-care centers to stay open and safely operate.
“Child-care providers who work with children from birth to 3 are in close contact with people. They’re changing their diapers and cleaning their noses, so you have to think of them much like you want to do for workers in long-term-care facilities,” Burtch Puffert said.
She said the local organization, which is part of the national Child Care Aware network, is connected with the 5,500 licensed child-care providers statewide. About two-thirds of those providers, she said, are small, home-based day-care settings with one to two staff members. The remaining centers, which provide care to between 25 and 300 children, have more employees.
A spokesperson from the state Department of Children, Youth & Families said there are around 90,000 workers who make up the workforce under the broad category of child care, and who now qualify to receive a coronavirus vaccine.
Vaccination eligibility offers hope to providers, yet “finding a shot is still tremendously difficult,” Burtch Puffert said. She added that there is still much work to be done to help providers fully reopen and get back up and running at a prepandemic capacity.
“Providers have had their livelihood literally ripped out from under them,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control has placed capacity restrictions on child-care centers. Those restrictions, combined with families’ reticence to have children in a setting with people from multiple households, has resulted in about a 50% drop in the number of children attending care, Burtch Puffert said.
And that’s a 50% drop in income, Burtch Puffert said. “So providers have been holding on by their fingernails, trying to hold onto their businesses, hoping that this would turn around so that they could get back to earning a wage that would work,” she said. “Their businesses are in a huge state of flux and families are still trying to figure out what the right answer is for them around children returning to care.”
The uncertainty has been overwhelming, and is taking a heavy emotional toll on children, families and providers alike.
Child Care Aware of Washington has a team of 250 coaches statewide to conduct check-ins and help walk providers through guideline changes and determine their best path forward. The organization provides local services through six regional partners located across the state, and each of those regions has a mental health counselor assigned to work with providers there.
The organization has been running a virtual training program on the business of child care, in both English and Spanish, to connect providers with tools and best business practices to help them remain open.
As more details develop on vaccinating child-care professionals, the nonprofit is planning to support efforts that provide outreach to providers with communications about their vaccine options, offering spaces and support staffing for pop-up vaccination clinics and collaboration across agencies working to get this sector back up and running.