Hundreds of Tri-Cities residents protested Wednesday outside the Kennewick School District headquarters and the local health department office.
The rallies were initially organized to oppose Washington state’s school mask mandate, then Gov. Jay Inslee announced that school employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.
What began as about 40 people at a “Freedom of Choice” demonstration outside the Benton Franklin Health District in the afternoon grew to several hundred people waving signs at the school district offices by Wednesday evening.
In Olympia, protesters arrived at the Capitol on Wednesday with signs that read “No jab,” “Unmask our kids” and “Liberty over tyranny.” A few hundred protesters had rallied against vaccine mandates at the Capitol campus on Friday, followed by a smaller crowd Monday.
But, state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal said during Wednesday’s news conference in Olympia, “This is the best way to keep schools open.”
“Our goal here is safety first and foremost and retaining the opening of our schools and keeping them open,” he said.
The decision is the result of the surge in infections from the delta variant of COVID-19.
The Tri-Cities had 314 more confirmed new cases on Wednesday. That brought the total for the week, including the weekend, to 1,164 more infections, for an average of 233 cases each day.
Last week new cases averaged 203 a day.
Reykdal suggested the vaccine mandate to the governor a week ago, triggering immediate staffing concerns from Richland Superintendent Shelley Redinger.
“While many of our staff in Richland School District have chosen to vaccinate, many others have not,” she said in a letter sent to Richland school employees last week. “A good portion of our unvaccinated staff will depart our district when we are only weeks away from the start of the 2021-22 school year.”
She is concerned it will mean the district may not be able to provide in-person instruction, something it’s required to do.
The Tri-Cities school districts were among the first in the state to bring students back into classrooms for in-person learning.
Redinger pointed out the district had plans in place to protect everyone, and didn’t need to close any schools because of COVID-19 outbreaks. She also noted the district provided clinics that led to about 800 students getting vaccinated.
She said she asked state officials to take a different direction, such as implementing a weekly testing protocol for staff.
Richland officials weren’t immediately available to respond to Wednesday’s announcement.
Reykdal and Inslee said the local school districts can’t take a different route. Inslee directed people upset with his decision to call his office.
Kennewick Superintendent Traci Pierce echoed that in a statement to the Herald on Wednesday.
“When communicating with KSD staff, I am also transparent about the fact that as a local district we have no choice but to follow state mandates,” she said. “State officials have clearly communicated that state and federal funds will be withheld if districts do not follow COVID-related rules.”
The state and federal funding made up $233 million of Kennewick’s $272 million budget for the 2020-21 school year. Other school districts are similar.
Pierce said she has shared with state officials the perspectives from her staff about the impact of the decision. She is aware the district has employees who are vaccinated and others who are not.
Pasco’s director of public affairs, Shane Edinger, said there has been a lot of confusion around how vaccination verification will be determined.
“That is concerning as the district continues to prepare for a school year that will start in less than three weeks,” Edinger said.
The vaccination requirement doesn’t apply to students. None of the vaccines are available for students younger than 12.
Employees can get a medical or religious exemption to the requirement, said state officials.
School officials said they plan to provide information about exemptions to their staff as soon as possible.