Republican and Democratic leaders of education committees in the Washington Legislature are urging Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Health to change state vaccination guidance so that all school employees are prioritized to receive a coronavirus vaccine in February, instead of putting school employees over age 50 ahead of other school staff.
The letter was signed by Democratic Sen. Lisa Wellman and Republican Sen. Brad Hawkins, chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, and Democratic Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos and Republican Rep. Alex Ybarra, chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House Education Committee.
“Nothing will even resemble normal until our schools are fully functioning, given that they are foundational in so many ways to all Washington communities,” the lawmakers wrote in the Jan. 11 letter. “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."
Guidance released by the state Department of Health last week shows that K-12 educators and staff, as well as child-care workers, who are age 50 or older are considered “high-risk critical workers” and are eligible to be vaccinated in February as part of Phase 1, group B2. Educators younger than 50 would not qualify for a vaccine until April.
Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction, also wrote to Inslee and Secretary of Health Umair Shah urging that vaccinations be offered to school staff more quickly. Seattle Superintendent Denise Juneau last week sent a similar letter, saying a speedier vaccine rollout for school employees would "help build trust" as the district moves to bring young students back for face-to-face learning on March 1st.
"To be clear, we do not need widespread vaccination in order to safely reopen schools, but vaccinations will expedite school openings," Reykdal wrote.
Hawkins, who represents parts of Central Washington including Chelan and Douglas counties and previously served as a school board president, said in an interview with KNKX that he was surprised to see educators under the age of 50 listed that low on the prioritization timeline.
“Why in the world would they leave a huge portion of the school employee population towards the back of the line in this early phase? It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “I support schools with in-person instruction, but the least we could do as a state is grant access for school employees to get a vaccine if they want it.”
This is a big issue for teachers and other school staff as districts including Tacoma and Bellevue prepare to bring some of the youngest students back for in-person instruction. Tacoma is set to bring kindergartners to school buildings next week on a hybrid schedule, and Bellevue is planning to bring second-graders in starting Jan. 21.
At the same time, coronavirus transmission in the community remains high right now. The 14-day case rate per 100,000 people in Pierce County is 444, and in King County, it’s 313 per 100,000. Department of Health guidance to school districts categorizes coronavirus activity as “high” when it reaches a 14-day case rate of 350 per 100,000 people. At that level, the department recommends that districts phase in in-person learning for elementary students and high-needs students in groups of 15 or fewer.
Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier, a pediatrician who represents Washington’s 8th district in Congress, wrote in American Healthcare Journal that teachers need to be prioritized for immunization. She said children need to be back in school for face-to-face instruction and that parents, especially women, have been disproportionately burdened by the shift to remote learning.
Danielle Koenig, health promotion supervisor for the Washington State Department of Health, said by email last week that the prioritization guidance was “built to protect those most at risk first while vaccine capacity is limited.”
“We will broaden to other groups and those at lower risk as we get more vaccine,” she wrote. “Eventually everyone will be eligible for the vaccine.”
Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Gov. Inslee, said in an email that Inslee’s office will consider “all requests and recommendations” and that the 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 well-being of the state’s educators from the very beginning of the emergency,” he wrote. “We have put out robust guidance on what health and safety measures are necessary before returning to the classroom."
UPDATE, 5:10 p.m.: Adds that State Superintendent Chris Reykdal and Seattle Superintendent Denise Juneau have also urged the governor to prioritize school staff in the vaccine distribution timeline.
KNKX reporter Jennifer Wing contributed reporting to this story.