About nine in 10 public school employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Washington state, the state education department announced this week. 

The 89% vaccination rate for school workers — who were among the first granted access to vaccines — is slightly lower than that of other state employees, whose total vaccinated numbers stood at about 93% of workers this week

Nearly all of the rest, about 10%, were granted a religious or medical exemption by their school district, a rate seven percentage points higher than that of other state agencies combined. Most of the exemptions, which are granted by individual school district human resources departments, are for religious reasons. 

At a news conference Thursday, state superintendent Chris Reykdal said the results were still “stunning,” pointing to the large number of school districts across the state’s rural and conservative areas where vaccine resistance is prevalent. In every county, he said, the rate of vaccinated school employees exceeded that of the vaccine rate for the total population in that county. 

Asked if he was concerned that school districts were awarding religious exemptions at a higher rate than other state agencies, Reykdal said he wasn’t surprised, given that state agencies are primarily operated out of urban areas. 

“This has been one of those interesting gray areas and challenging for folks. … The federal law is really clear. It doesn’t have to be a longstanding belief. It doesn’t have to be affiliated with a formal church organization. It can be a recently adopted belief,” he said. “We didn’t get into the detail of [those decisions] because the employer of record is the school district. We gave them the framework and then they made those decisions.” Washington state has about 300 school districts. 

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At the time it was issued in August, Washington state had the strictest vaccination mandate for school workers in the country. In New Jersey and California, employees have the option of undergoing regular testing as an alternative to taking the shot. (By next July, the weekly testing option will disappear in California.) Oregon has a similar mandate to Washington. 

“We, candidly, frustrated some people that we didn’t have a weekly or biweekly testing option,” Reykdal said. “We just did not get the confidence from public health that that’s the safest model.” 

Districts that fail to enforce the order and do not fire noncompliant school employees will see their funding reduced, and at least one school system, Eatonville, has publicly refused to follow orders to fire noncompliant workers.

Seattle Public Schools announced this month that 99% of its nearly 7,800 staff complied with the mandate, with 205 receiving exemptions. In the Bellevue School District, more than 96% of workers complied with the mandate, though the district did not count the number with religious exemptions in that total. 

It’s unknown what the vaccination rates are for private schools, which are also subject to the order. The state education department did not collect those figures, and Reykdal wasn’t aware of any other agency that had collected them. About 6.7% of Washington students attend a private school.

Leading up to the Oct. 18 deadline, districts had been contending with an exodus of employees due to the mandate. Dozens of school bus drivers in Seattle quit their jobs, worsening an existing shortage. That’s forced the district to cut routes and created hours of delays in pickups.

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Compared to statewide totals, however, the presumed departures  due to vaccine refusals seem small. Less than 1% of the state’s 150,000-plus school district employees failed to comply with the mandate, fewer than 500 people. Across other state government agencies, nearly 1,800 left or were fired over the mandate.

Still, Reykdal described the education system as being under “enormous strain.” Total enrollment in public schools dropped by 3.5% this fall, which could mean the loss of hundreds of millions in funding. Districts are struggling to hire new staff, including nurses, and daily absence rates across the state are nearly double pre-pandemic levels. Around 50,000 students are at home each day, a climb he attributed to quarantines. 

This week, the state health department announced new guidelines that will soon require schools to offer families a weeklong quarantine option, rather than the two-week period most schools have already imposed. 

More than 300,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, approved for children between 5 and 11, arrived in the state this week. There is no mandate for students to be vaccinated at this time, a decision left up to the State Board of Health. 

Reykdal said he would support a measure to mandate the shots for students next year. California announced a student vaccine mandate effective next summer. 

Few other states with vaccine mandates for K-12 workers have released public, statewide figures indicating school worker vaccination rates. In late August, Hawaii, which has one school district across its islands, reported 89% of employees were vaccinated. 

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee originally left K-12 workers out of the vaccine mandate for state workers. But state education officials appealed.