WA mandates vaccines for teachers, other school staff

School employees have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated, or they will lose their jobs.

Teacher Lisa Tyler, right, wears a mask as she works with Gabriel Worthey, 10, on a math problem in a fourth grade classroom, Feb. 2, 2021, at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley. The school has had some students in classrooms for in-person learning since September  2020, but other students who attend the school are still learning remotely. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited the school to observe classrooms and take part in a discussion with teachers and administrators about plans to further open in-person learning in Washington in the future. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Washington state teachers and other school staff will be required to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or lose their jobs, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday, as many districts prepare for in-class instruction to start in two weeks.

Teachers, bus drivers, administrators and others working in K-12 schools — both public and private — will have until Oct. 18 to comply with the new mandate. 

The requirement comes as COVID-19 cases in Washington state are rising because of the delta variant, while the vaccines are proving effective at preventing severe illness or death and keeping people out of hospitals. 

Exemptions include legitimate medical reasons and “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Employees will not have the option to undergo weekly COVID tests in lieu of vaccination.

Inslee made the announcement nearly a week after Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction, called for a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for educators, citing the rising numbers from the COVID-19 delta variant, which health officials have said is more transmissible than the original virus.

“[H]ealth and safety and the in-person return of our students and staff to learning in our buildings [are] at risk. Delta has changed that. We were on a trajectory of tremendous success here. We still can be and will be if we follow some safety measures,” Reykdal said last week.

In informal polling of districts, the state estimates about 30,000 to 40,000 school personnel are unvaccinated.

Reykdal said he felt the measures were necessary to avoid disruptions to in-person instruction, both because of the danger to school staff and to students under 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated.

“We will have to shut down schools, we will have to shut down buildings or quarantine significant numbers of students on a regular basis. That disruption of learning has a big impact on learners, on our families, our economy. We know how devastating this was particularly for working moms in the past year,” he said.

State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, criticized this approach to vaccines and schools, calling the governor's mandate of vaccines for public employees an extreme position.

“ A more collaborative, compassionate and inclusive outreach campaign to persuade people to get the vaccine would be more effective and less damaging than the governor throwing around the weight of his unchecked emergency powers," said Braun, who has been vaccinated. “Dictating is not the same as leading. Intimidating and publicly shaming people who have sincere concerns is the wrong path.”

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has already mandated several health and safety measures to avoid spreading COVID-19 as schools reopen. These measures include maintaining a minimum of 3 feet between each student and requiring masks for students, teachers and other staff. The mask requirement has come under fire in some districts, with opposition from parents and lawmakers in Onalaska, Enumclaw, and East Pierce County, among others.

Washington follows California and New Mexico in implementing a statewide COVID-19 mandate for educators, but unlike those other states, school employees who are unvaccinated will not have the option to undergo weekly tests for COVID-19. This mirrors the governor’s decision about a vaccine mandate for state employees and medical workers.

Early on in the pandemic, most COVID-19 cases were detected in older adults. Now, in Washington state, people aged 19 and younger have made up 18% of cases, according to the state Department of Health.

The vaccine is still not required for students, although it is available for some of them. While about half of children aged 12 to 17 have had at least one vaccine shot, children 11 or younger are not yet eligible. Federal health officials have said approval of the vaccines for younger children may come this fall.

The Washington State Board of Health told Crosscut earlier this year that no COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students will be made until the vaccine is fully licensed by the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes a recommendation. The vaccines are currently under federal emergency approval for everyone.

Earlier this month, Inslee required vaccines for state employees, regardless of whether they work remotely or in the office. 

Inslee also mandated vaccines for employees of colleges and universities, as well as for multiple family child care settings.

Masks in indoor settings will also be required for everyone, including vaccinated people, effective Monday, Aug. 23.

Adds a comment from Republican leadership in the Legislature.


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