Dr. Anthony Fauci assures it can be done safely. Washington schools chief Chris Reykdal is threatening to withhold federal funds from school districts that don’t have plans to do it. And Gov. Jay Inslee repeatedly urges districts to get students back in school in safe, proven ways.
Yet, that is not happening in many districts around the state.
Though dozens of the state’s school districts are safely educating children in person at least part time, resistance from the Washington Education Association and local unions is hamstringing progress in many others.
Even as state leaders try to cajole school districts to follow science-based public-health guidelines to get more of the state’s 1 million students back in school, the WEA’s formal position is that teachers should have access to full vaccination against COVID-19 before returning to classroom instruction. The position flies in the face of recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, the state Department of Health and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which all say safety measures, not vaccines, are key to safe school operation.
Meanwhile, many students are suffering socially, emotionally and academically. As remote learning exacerbates inequities, many of the state’s highest-risk students are being left behind.
The CDC recently restated its position that schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen with proper mitigation. Still, the teacher’s union isn’t budging:
“The position is from January, and we’re standing with it,” said WEA spokesperson Julie Popper. “We need every layer of protection in place that we can get.”
That stance was more understandable last August, when safety guidelines for schools were primarily based on theory. But it isn’t now, with mounting evidence from districts that have been offering safe, in-person instruction for months.
Take the Mead School District, north of Spokane, where about 80% of the district’s students are enrolled in some kind of face-to-face instruction. That includes 4,000 of the district’s 5,000 elementary students, who are in safe, socially distanced classrooms full time. Older students are on hybrid schedules. Clearly, safety precautions are working: Contract tracers identified only five cases of in-school transmission in the Mead district from the start of the school year through the first week of December.
“I’m a little disheartened and disappointed that there aren’t more students in Washington back face-to-face, given that there are so many models of how to do it safely,” said Mead Superintendent Shawn Woodward. “If you’re serious about following through with all the guidelines, you can do it in such a way that everyone will be fine.”
At Moses Lake Schools, more than 5,250 of the district’s nearly 8,000 students are receiving full-time, in-person instruction. As of Thursday, the district had recorded a total of 298 cases of coronavirus among students and staff — representing just over 4% of the in-person population. That’s lower than surrounding Grant County, said superintendent Joshua Meek.
But the WEA’s Popper said there still isn’t enough proof that school staff will be safe if they’re not vaccinated before returning to classrooms. The WEA does not negotiate collective bargaining agreements; that falls to local teachers unions and school administrators. Still, the organization’s positions carry weight.
So, there’s no surprise that so many districts are reopening classrooms at a snail’s pace. Fewer than one-third of Washington’s students received any kind of in-person instruction during the week of Feb. 8, according to the OSPI. Just over 40% of elementary school students spent any time in class that week. Not even Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest offering, expanding an on-site COVID-19 testing pilot to an additional 48 school districts, seems likely to get things moving faster.
State guidelines recommend that schools phase in in-person instruction, starting with small groups of the youngest and highest-need students even when cases in the surrounding community are high. When cases are between 50 and 350 per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period, the guidelines encourage phased reopening of elementary and middle schools.
In King County, the two-week case average was 129 per 100,000 on Thursday, according to the King County COVID-19 dashboard. Although cases did spike over the holidays, that rolling average has been below 350 for more than a month and continues to decline.
The Seattle School Board has directed administrators to begin phasing in in-person instruction for its youngest students on March 1, but that start date is in question. The Seattle Education Association wants the school district to allow any teacher, regardless of risk or age group, to continue working remotely until they are fully vaccinated, if that’s their choice.
No one wants teachers or school staff to get sick, but this hard-line approach is hurting students. Over the past 12 months, nearly every Washingtonian has had to adjust, make do and take calculated risks to minimize harm while maximizing safety. It’s time for teachers to budge.