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Inslee: Teachers and staff must receive COVID-19 vaccine by mid-October

Arcadia Elementary School third-grader Journey Johnson, 8, wears a required mask as she washes her hands before the start of class during the first day of school last September in Deer Park.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – All employees in K-12 schools, most child care and early learning centers, and higher education must get vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 18 or they may lose their jobs, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday.

All K-12 educators, school staff, substitutes coaches, bus drivers, school volunteers and others working in school facilities must get vaccinated as a condition of employment. The requirement includes public, private and charter schools.

There will be no option for regular COVID-19 tests instead of vaccination. With few exemptions, Washington’s vaccine requirement for teachers is among the strictest in the nation, according to the New York Times.

“We can go back to the painful days of closing businesses and schools, or we can use the known, effective and safe tools at our disposal to keep our businesses and schools open,” Inslee told reporters Wednesday. “We should not shut down our schools again.”

Those two tools: masks and vaccines.

Inslee also announced that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, is required to wear masks inside public settings.

Inslee’s announcements on Wednesday were not met without opposition.

About 75 protesters gathered on the steps of the Legislative Building in Olympia with signs that said “unmask our kids” and “let kids breathe.” Students, teachers and staff are required to wear masks while inside K-12 spaces this school year.

During Inslee’s news conference, protesters found their way inside, chanting “We will not consent!” and banging on the door of Inslee’s office.

Inslee and Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal made clear Wednesday the vaccine requirement does not apply to students.

The requirement follows “rapidly increasing” COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state, Inslee said. The delta variant presents a new challenge to the state.

“In a sense, this is a new fight,” he said.

Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said about 98% of COVID-19 cases in the state are due to the delta variant, calling it a “very serious situation.”

Still, most cases are occurring in unvaccinated people, Inslee said. About 95% of hospitalizations in the state are for those who are not vaccinated.

Last week, Reykdal sent a letter to Inslee, urging him to include public school employees in the governor’s vaccine mandate for state and health care employees.

He said Friday he was “confident” Inslee would follow through with his request.

Reykdal said without vaccine mandates and mask mandates, “keeping schools open will be a challenge.”

He has said he would withhold federal funding to schools this year if they do not follow the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s guidelines, which include offering full-time, in-person instruction and requiring masks for everyone indoors.

“(The vaccine mandate) is a requirement,” Reykdal said Wednesday. “We will expect folks to move expeditiously who do not have this.”

There will still be exemptions for employees who need medical or religious accommodations, similar to what state and health care employees have.

Unions may bargain for time off to receive the vaccine or recover from symptoms, according to Inslee’s office.

Employees in Washington’s higher education institutions and most child care and early learning providers are also required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. In higher education, that includes staff, faculty and contractors. Coaches and coaching staff are also included under this mandate.

For child care and early learning, it includes licensed, certified and contracted programs, license-exempt programs and contractors. Family, friends and neighbor caregivers are not included in the mandate.

Those who refuse to get vaccinated will be subject to dismissal, according to his office.

To meet the Oct. 18 deadline of fully vaccinated, employees need to complete their second dose by Oct. 4. “Fully vaccinated” means two weeks after the second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or after the dose of Johnson & Johnson.

The mandate is from the state agencies, but local school districts will be the ones charged with checking vaccination status, Reykdal said.

Schools will begin regular checks of vaccination status among their employees, and by Oct. 5, they will know who has not been vaccinated.

Those who have not received their second dose by that point will likely lose their jobs, Inslee said.

The dismissal process statewide will take “days, not months,” Inslee said.

The governor’s office estimates the requirement will cover about 155,000 educators and staff in K-12 schools across the state. It will likely affect about 118,000 workers in child care and early learning programs, and 90,000 for higher education. Those numbers are everyone it covers, regardless of vaccination status.

Reykdal said the percent of employees already vaccinated varies geographically and by what type of job they do. In many places, the percentage is “well in excess of 70%,” but in other places, it is much less.

“Our goal is to get them all vaccinated,” he said.

Inslee said he does not think many people will end up losing their jobs because “these are folks that care about the public.”

The National Education Association last week announced its support for requiring all educators to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Inslee said this decision comes as there is a growing acceptance by the public for vaccine and mask mandates, but acknowledged there will still be some people who do not agree.

Inslee and Reykdal encouraged protesters to keep their anger toward the state, not toward the local school districts.

“They need to run schools,” Reykdal said. “That criticism can come our way.”

School districts don’t have the authority to make or change these requirements, Inslee said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.