To bridge a school-reopening impasse between Seattle Public Schools and its teachers union, several state lawmakers are lobbying Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to create vaccine clinics on school sites for educators, and fast-track their timeline to receive doses.
A letter sent last week by more than a dozen lawmakers representing Seattle in the state Legislature called on Inslee to create clinics located on school campuses “in order to rapidly facilitate opening of schools.” Another letter, sent to Durkan, asks for the city’s support.
“Site-based vaccination is important for vaccinating the school personnel for second shots, rather than having staff taking time from vital work to schedule and be vaccinated,” the letter said. “Site-based vaccination is the strategy that has been demonstrated to be most effective in having universal vaccination for essential workplaces.”
But on Monday evening, Inslee gave no indication that he would change the state’s eligibility requirements to move teachers higher up the priority list.
Under the current vaccination timeline, most educators won’t have access to the vaccine until sometime this spring; school employees aged 50 and older are next in line on the priority list. A state initiative intended to help teachers evade long waits for a vaccine appointment is expected to roll out when that moment arrives. It’s unclear how many school campuses it will involve.
Since January, the district and the Seattle Education Association (SEA) have been negotiating over a plan to offer in-person instruction to preschool through first graders, along with about 2,500 students with disabilities. Although the two sides have not yet reached an agreement, the district last week notified about 700 educators who teach preschoolers and students receiving special education services that they will be expected to report back on March 8. In response, the union lodged three unfair labor practice complaints against the district on Sunday.
“Obviously, this is between the district and employees, but I am hopeful they can work it out,” Inslee said in an emailed statement. “Students have returned to in-person learning in more than 1,400 schools throughout the state and educators have led on the implementation of the safety protocols … I have visited schools that are both urban and rural, high-income and low-income, old and new buildings and with students from diverse backgrounds. Regardless of their circumstances, they are able to make it work.”
Once teachers in the 50 and older group are eligible, a contract between the state and Kaiser Permanente will make the process more convenient for teachers with pop-up vaccine clinics at buildings owned and operated by Kaiser. The plan could include opening some vaccine sites on school campuses where there isn’t a Kaiser clinic nearby.
Vaccinations for educators have been a hallmark issue in labor negotiations over reopening school buildings here and across the country. In Seattle, many teachers have called for access to vaccines before returning to the classroom — echoing the stance of the statewide teachers union, the Washington Education Association, a powerful broker in state politics. A survey of about half of SEA’s 6,000 members found 62% said they would like educators to have access to the vaccine before classrooms are reopened.
In January, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau penned a letter to state health officials requesting that all teachers be included in the next vaccine phase.
“It does not make sense to have an age limit of ‘over 50’ for educational professionals. Our top priority must be to keep our staff, students, and communities physically safe, as well as mentally and academically healthy,” she wrote.
Top state officials have acknowledged the need to vaccinate educators but stressed schools can safely reopen without them if appropriate safety protocols are in place, such as masking and social distancing.
Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson for Durkan, said that new high-volume vaccine sites in the city would have the capability to vaccinate teachers eligible as soon as the state sends the necessary doses for the next stage of vaccinations. Durkan does not have the power to change vaccine priorities.
“Mayor Durkan wants teachers back in the classroom. The City of Seattle is ready to vaccinate eligible teachers as soon as possible, especially as we move to the next phase where high-risk critical workers ages 50 and over become eligible,” Nyland said in an email.
The district is under significant pressure to offer more services to students with disabilities. Some families have been promised in-person instruction for months, and the district is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for failing to provide appropriate instruction to kids with disabilities. In negotiations, the union has argued that under current conditions, educators and students may not be sufficiently protected in situations where teachers have to be in close physical contact with kids, or when working with children who can’t wear a mask.
“We have a duty to make sure educators and staff are vaccinated in order to meet that legal” requirement to provide education to students with disabilities, said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, one of the lawmakers pushing to fast-track vaccines for educators.
Guidance released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccines aren’t necessary to reopen school buildings, but the federal agency has encouraged state officials to consider prioritizing educators. However, the CDC has also stressed the need for widespread testing and encouraged districts to stay remote or operate in a hybrid model if community transmission is high.
“SEA thanks the legislators who are prioritizing the health and safety of our students and educators. The vaccination is a key layer of protection against COVID,” said SEA President Jennifer Matter.
But even if educators are offered the vaccine sooner, it’s unclear how much of a difference it would make in school reopening broadly. In Oregon, teachers were among the first to receive doses, and most kids there are still learning remotely. Negotiations have also centered on mitigation strategies such as ventilation in buildings and other workplace issues such as accommodations for employees.
“[Seattle Public Schools] also needs to refocus their energy at reaching an agreement with SEA that puts every possible protection in place because not every member of the community will be vaccinated,” Matter said.
Hannah Graether, a paraeducator at Franklin High School who received the notice to report to her school building next week, said vaccination isn’t the only factor for her to feel comfortable returning.
She hasn’t received any information on safety measures being taken in her school building that have increased her confidence. (Some elements are still being bargained.) And at this late stage in the game, with just three months of school left, she fears the transition around reopening will end up with students actually losing more instructional time.
“Making a change to the instructional model right now is going to be a detriment to learning,” said Graether, who works with students who have mental health needs associated with bipolar disorder, ADHD and depression.
At the bargaining table, the union has asked for weekly access to rapid testing for the virus as part of a reopening agreement, and for detailed protocols on safety measures such as contact tracing. It has also asked for a full-time nurse assigned to each school building.
Asked if vaccines would help move negotiations forward, Matter responded via email: “Vaccines would certainly help!”
Seattle Times staff reporter David Gutman contributed reporting to this story.