State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said Friday he is “confident” Gov. Jay Inslee will require public school employees to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and that he expects an announcement next week.
Reykdal, who held a news conference Friday to lay out his case for a teacher and staff vaccination mandate, sent a letter to the governor Thursday “strongly encouraging” him to include school employees in his sweeping order requiring state employees and health care workers to be vaccinated.
“They (Inslee’s office) have consistently understood our interest here,” said Reykdal. “I am very confident that we are going to be near to the next step of that cycle” of requiring more employee groups to get the vaccine.
Inslee is currently in Montana for a mix of official business and some personal days off, said spokeswoman Tara Lee. He is expected to return to Washington Sunday evening.
If the order is extended, public school employees who don’t get vaccinated could risk losing their jobs. And districts that don’t adopt the mandate could have state or federal funds halted by the state superintendent’s office for not following the governor’s order, Reykdal said.
The low rate of hospitalizations among people who are vaccinated shows that “vaccines work,” he said. “It is the science of vaccines that demonstrates this for us.”
The largest school district in Washington has taken its own steps toward a vaccine requirement. Seattle Public Schools is requiring all employees who aren’t represented by a union to be vaccinated, according to an email interim Superintendent Brent Jones sent employees Thursday evening. Of the Seattle district’s 11,685 employees, 3,447 — or about 29% — are not represented by a union.
“As a condition of employment, employees will have until October 18, 2021 to become fully vaccinated,” the email said. “It will include limited exemptions from this requirement for documented medical reasons and sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Jones encouraged union employees to follow suit and has directed staff to immediately begin bargaining so this requirement will apply to all employees, the email said.
The Seattle Education Association is supportive of a vaccine mandate and is in negotiations, according to a statement from union leadership. The statewide Washington Education Association also says it will support a mandate if state public health experts, such as the Department of Health, and authorities such as Inslee determine it is necessary, said spokeswoman Julie Popper.
“I am hopeful all our labor partners will readily agree to implement this critical measure to further public health and protect our school communities,” Jones said in the email.
Under Inslee’s Monday order, state employees and health care workers need to show proof of vaccinations by Oct. 18 or they’ll lose their jobs unless they receive a medical or religious exemption. For school employees, the deadline to receive the vaccine may be different, Reykdal said, and that decision should be made by the governor.
During the news conference, Reykdal said a vaccination requirement for school employees won’t delay the start of school, which for most districts, including Seattle, is Sept. 1. With the highly contagious delta variant spreading, he said, it’s going to be a challenge to keep schools open without taking these measures.
“For those folks frustrated by mask requirements or vaccine requirements, they need to understand the consequence,” Reydkal said. “We will have to shut down schools, we will have to shut down buildings or quarantine significant number of students on a regular basis. That disruption of learning has a big impact on our learners, our families, and our economy.”
Washington is also one of a handful of states requiring everyone in public and private schools to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status, a continuation of the mask requirement from last school year. About a dozen Republican state legislators sent the governor a letter this week urging him to reconsider the mask mandate.
Inslee hasn’t formally responded to the letter, but is unlikely to change his mind about masks, said Lee, the governor’s spokesperson.
William Baur, a middle school science teacher at Battle Ground Public Schools, said California Gov. Gavin Newsom set a good example this week when he ordered all public and private schoolteachers to show proof of vaccination or be subject to regular testing.
“I think him setting that example of doing statewide vaccine requirements (for teachers) will save thousands of people’s lives,” Baur said.
Baur has seen what can happen when people don’t get vaccinated. In January 2019, there was a monthslong measles outbreak in Clark County that caused some Battle Ground schools to close. The Clark County public health office confirmed 71 cases, the majority among children ages 1 to 18 and those who didn’t have the measles vaccine.
River Homelink, the school where Baur teaches, stopped in-person instruction for two weeks, Baur said, and “it was very much like what happened in March 2020.”
Reykdal said he spoke to the state Department of Health, the governor’s office, superintendents, labor union leaders and board members across the state before making the recommendation.
School districts are “very, very concerned” vaccination requirements will drive further employee shortages, and “I respect that difficulty,” he said.
“We considered that. We heard that,” he said. “That goes into our consideration, but on balance, this request to the governor undoubtedly will save lives to keep our schools open.”
Shereen Allen, a middle school social studies teacher at Shoreline School District, said she is vaccinated and thinks people need to get vaccinated to stop the spread of COVID-19. But she is unsure how local school districts will implement vaccine requirements.
“Not every district is the same size or has the same resources,” Allen said. “Yes, it (the vaccine) protects more people but I don’t know how you actually get it implemented when there are teacher shortages and sub shortages. So, you know, this has been my struggle throughout.”
The vaccination requirement does not apply to students, Reykdal said. But if the state Department of Health were to recommend all students be vaccinated to be enrolled in school, he said he would support it.