SEATTLE - The governor and state health department are facing growing pressure to move up school employees in the vaccine order as more students head back to the classroom.
Across the state, students are returning to in-person instruction while COVID-cases remain near record highs. While guidelines to reopen schools make the classroom safer than back in March, the state teachers union, school superintendents and now state lawmakers are urging the governor to give educators an extra layer of protection: the vaccine.
"Obviously we want to go back, we are teachers and we love our kids and we more than anyone can see the impact that remote learning has had on them," said Kate Schueler, a teacher at John Muir Elementary in Seattle. "It just feels like a lot of thought wasn’t put into this plan, honestly."
Seattle Public Schools is currently targeting a March 1 return date for in-person instruction, at least one month before Schueler would be eligible for a vaccine under the state’s current guidance.
Right now, school employees ages 50 and older first appear on the state’s vaccine order in February, while those under age 50 are not scheduled until at least April, nearing the end of the school year.
On Tuesday night, the Washington Education Association, the state’s teachers union, called for all on-site educators to be able to get the vaccine, regardless of age, saying, "As the push continues to return more students and educators to in-person settings, all educators should receive the full course of the vaccine before starting on-site."
"Nobody should have to risk their life when precautionary measures are available," said WEA vice president, Janie White.
Some state lawmakers also called the timing "unacceptable" in a letter sent Monday to Gov. Jay Inslee and Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah. It was signed by the chairs and ranking members of education committees in both the House and Senate.
"For school districts to expect teachers, administrators, and support staff to return to an in-building environment – interacting with hundreds and potentially thousands of students and parents – without providing an opportunity to be protected is unacceptable," wrote Sens. Lisa Wellman and Brad Hawkins and Reps. Sharon Tomiko Santos and Alex Ybarra.
Schueler also questioned the timing after navigating remote learning with her elementary students for nearly a year.
"The fact that I have waited all of this time but then would end up going back to a school, being in a classroom with 15 kids, and that I would be missing a really important piece of the safety plan which is a vaccine, and that I could potentially come home and make my family sick is terrifying for me," said Schueler, whose own daughter has asthma and is considered more high risk if she contracts COVID-19.
The lawmakers in the letter urged Inslee to move all school employees to Phase 1B2 on the vaccine order, which should put them in line to get vaccines in February. Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau, in a separate letter, asked the governor to move school employees even higher, to Phase 1B1, which should begin the end of January.
Juneau also noted that, "It does not make sense to have an age limit of ‘over 50’ for educational professionals."
A month ago, when the governor announced new guidance to encourage reopening schools, I asked him if he was making any kind of push to get teachers higher up on the vaccine order. At the time, he answered, "It is something that will be on my mind about winning the confidence of educators as we make those decisions."
A vaccine plan now in hand, confidence is shaken.
"I feel like at this point, we’ve gotten so used to COVID that we’re forgetting that this is a really scary thing and that we need to hold off and we need to follow the science and wait until teachers can be vaccinated," Schueler said.
On Tuesday, I again followed up with the governor’s office over considerations to vaccinate educators sooner. In an email, the governor’s press secretary Mike Faulk said, "We consider all requests and recommendations, and the state’s vaccine distribution planning process is flexible to accommodate whatever developments we think are best for public health. Obviously we have been very concerned for the wellbeing of the state’s educators from the very beginning of the emergency. We have put out robust guidance on what health and safety measures are necessary before returning to the classroom."