As COVID-19 cases continue to surge, a growing number of elected officials, education leaders and health experts in Washington and around the country are voicing support for a vaccine requirement for teachers and staff in public schools.
On Wednesday, the same day California adopted a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal said he has “encouraged” Gov. Jay Inslee to consider requiring public school employees to be vaccinated.
And during a School Board meeting Wednesday, Seattle Public Schools interim Superintendent Brent Jones said he was considering a vaccination mandate for teachers in the state’s largest school district.
“I know there’s discussion at the state level for maybe having that as a mandate from the governor, but he hasn’t made that proclamation yet,” Jones said during the meeting. “But we are researching it and taking it very seriously internally.” Seattle students go back to school Sept. 1.
Earlier this week, Inslee issued a sweeping order requiring state employees and hundreds of thousands of health care workers to be vaccinated. He did not include public educators in the mandate.
The governor has the authority to require a vaccine for school employees, but that plan isn’t currently in the works, according to spokesperson Tara Lee.
“He (Inslee) felt it was important to focus on the state employees in his cabinet agencies and private health care workers,” Lee said in an email. “That is an important step that will help everyone, including children.”
State employees and health care workers have until Oct. 18 to get fully vaccinated and show proof, or they will lose their jobs. Exemptions are allowed for religious or medical reasons.
On Wednesday, California became the first state to require all teachers and school employees, including those in private schools, to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or be tested for the coronavirus weekly.
Several California school districts have issued similar policies for employees, including San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Long Beach Unified.
Reykdal said he believes a vaccine mandate would be a more effective way of slowing the spread of coronavirus — especially since students under the age of 12 aren’t eligible for the vaccine — rather than offering weekly tests as an option.
“Testing regimens are not, in my opinion, very effective to avoid the spread because you could get tested on a Monday but don’t get results until Wednesday,” Reykdal said. “So in the meantime, you can get COVID.”
It’s also expensive to regularly test and track the hundreds of thousands of school employees in the state, Reykdal said.
The Washington Education Association says everybody who can be vaccinated should be, spokesperson Julie Popper said in an email. But she did not answer questions about whether the state’s teachers union would support a vaccine requirement. At the national level, a vaccine mandate for teachers has gained support from Randi Weingarten, the president of the second-largest teachers union in the country.
During Wednesday’s Seattle School Board meeting, Jones said that a vaccine mandate would have to be bargained with the Seattle Education Association teachers union. So far, he said, he’s had a “favorable reception” to the idea.
California Gov. Gavin Newson’s announcement requiring vaccines or weekly tests came a day after infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told MSNBC vaccines should be required for teachers.
Having teachers vaccinated would help to decrease the spread of COVID-19 for students and teachers, said Michael Barsotti, president of the Washington chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“It’s important to understand there is misinformation out there and we need to be clear on what the science shows,” Barsotti said. “Vaccines are safe and they work and it’s the best line of defense at preventing and minimizing the pandemic. It saves lives, all the statistics show that.”
It’s unclear exactly how many Washington educators have been vaccinated because it’s not being formally tracked.
Some school districts have informally surveyed teachers, Reykdal said, and based on his conversations with labor and education leaders, “well in excess” of 70% of teachers have been vaccinated.
“I’m confident educators are vaccinated at a higher rate than the public at this point,” Reykdal said.
Currently, about 50% of children ages 12 through 18 are vaccinated in Washington, Barsotti said.
Some politicians say vaccine mandates should be a local decision.
Local school boards should have the right to decide if teachers should be vaccinated because school boards know what’s best for their families and staff, said Rep. Joseph Schmick, R-Colfax.
Many state colleges and universities have mandated vaccines for students and staff, but with broad exemption clauses that allow people to opt out for personal or philosophical reasons. Washington State University football coach Nick Rolovich has drawn criticism for his decision not to get the vaccine, citing personal reasons.
There are no immediate plans for a statewide vaccination requirement for teachers in Oregon, according to state Department of Education spokesperson Marc Siegel. Gov. Kate Brown issued a vaccine requirement on Tuesday for state employees and a statewide indoor mask requirement. Brown also encouraged all public and private employers to follow suit.
A push to remove the mask mandate in schools
In the meantime, a mandate to wear masks in school — another health measure aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 — is drawing opposition from some state lawmakers.
Washington is one of a handful of states, including Oregon and California, to require masks for everyone in school regardless of vaccination status. It’s been a controversial topic in Washington and other parts of the country.
Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its mask-wearing guidance in schools and now recommends universal masking, regardless of vaccination status.
About a dozen Republican state legislators, including Schmick, sent Inslee a letter Monday urging the governor to reconsider the mask mandate for schools, citing low risks to children contracting COVID-19 and disruptions to learning.
“Masks take away from students being able to learn effectively, especially when it comes to younger students learning to read,” the letter said. “Teachers use their mouths to show how to make the sounds of different combinations of letters, which students then repeat.”
Parents should be able to decide if their children wear masks, the letter said, but “at the very least” it should be up to school districts. The letter also criticized a memo Reykdal sent to all state superintendents warning that districts that don’t comply with the mask requirement will have federal funds halted.
“Those investments should not be threatened by this broad decision,” the letter said. “Should those education dollars be withheld from schools, I believe the state would face further litigation.”
Reykdal pushed back, saying he supports the measure.
Any legislature that is demanding kids not wear masks is “irresponsible” and is ignoring the health and safety of students and school employees, Reykdal said. The mask mandate is not a local control issue, he said, and Washington law “explicitly” says school districts can’t violate state laws, including the order from the governor to require masks in schools.
The governor’s office hasn’t formally responded to the letter, Lee said, but it won’t “likely” persuade the governor to change his order on mask requirements.