• The San Juan Daily Star

Washington State imposes strictest school mandate in the US, requiring all staff to be vaccinated

By Dana Goldstein

All teachers and school personnel in Washington state — including coaches, bus drivers and volunteers — will need to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment, under a new policy announced by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this week. The requirement applies to staff regardless of the type of school in which they work: public, charter or private.

The policy is the strictest vaccine mandate imposed to date by any state for teachers and other staff members in schools, allowing for only a few exceptions. School staff must be vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face possible dismissal.

“We are well past the point where testing is enough to keep people safe,” Inslee said at a news conference. “We’ve tried it. It has not been adequate for the task at hand.”

He stressed that 95% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Washington were unvaccinated, and reminded the public that children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines.

“When you decide to get a vaccine, you’re protecting a kid out there who can’t get it,” he said.

Vaccine mandates have been hotly debated across the country, with a quarter of states, generally those led by Republicans, banning vaccine requirements for public employees like school staff, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education. But in recent days, some Democratic officials have moved to require the shots.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California has offered teachers in public and private schools the option of either vaccination or regular virus testing. City school systems in Los Angeles and Chicago have gone further to require staff vaccination, though there is an exemption process for those with disabling medical conditions or sincerely held religious beliefs.

Washington’s policy goes further than California’s. There is no option to choose regular testing instead of vaccination. There are limited exceptions, however, including for legitimate medical reasons and sincerely held religious beliefs. Individuals who refuse to get vaccinated will be subject to dismissal.

The state had already announced a mask mandate inside schools. It is experiencing a COVID-19 case surge that is straining its health care system.

Washington lagged behind most of the rest of the nation in reopening schools during the past academic year, as teachers’ unions across the state pushed for longer periods of remote learning, stricter virus safety measures in classrooms and access to vaccines for educators. All districts are planning to return to in-person learning five days a week this fall. Most districts reopen in early September.

Vaccine and mask mandates will ensure that schools can remain open, said Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent of public instruction. Extended school closures have affected children’s learning — especially the least advantaged — and put strain on working mothers, he added. When school staff get vaccinated, “you are creating the buffer and protection for young people,” Reykdal said.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said she expected local chapters would be able to negotiate some details of the vaccine requirement. The union said in a statement that it “encourages everyone who can to get vaccinated immediately” and emphasized the continued importance of other safety measures in schools, such as masks, contact tracing, testing and social distancing.

Jennifer Matter, president of the Seattle Education Association, which is the teachers’ union in the state’s largest school district, said the union and state “have a shared interest in creating a vaccine requirement to keep our community safe.”

Matter said that her union planned to negotiate with the district on how the mandate will be implemented. The negotiations could include a process for requesting an exemption or provisions for time off to get a vaccine or recover from side effects, she said.

Leaders of the two national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have said they support vaccine mandates for school staff.

The governor also announced new mandates for workers in the state’s colleges and universities, as well as for many child care workers. And he announced that the state’s indoor mask mandate would be expanded to include vaccinated individuals.

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