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Superintendents caught in the middle of new COVID mandates

Aug. 19, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 19, 2021 at 9:14 p.m.

In the midst of a brutal month for school administrators, Kyle Rydell has maintained his sense of perspective.

Rydell, superintendent of the West Valley School District, is dealing with the same challenges as his colleagues around the state.

On top of concerns over critical race theory and sex education, superintendents are getting squeezed from every side over mask and vaccine mandates issued by Gov. Jay Inslee.

More uncertainty lies ahead: How many teachers will balk at the vaccine mandate, and how many parents will follow through with threats to home-school or enroll their children in private schools?

“But the thing I look forward to, is what’s changed in the last 18 months,” Rydell said.

Rydell noted that in March 2020, schools reacted to the nascent threat of COVID-19 by abruptly shutting down schools and sending kids home.

Eighteen months later, kids will be back in class full time – albeit with masks – despite sharply rising COVID cases locally and everywhere else.

“There are some obstacles, but ultimately, having our kids back full time is the most important thing,” Rydell said.

Districts have spent most of July walking a tightrope over Inslee’s mask mandate. Issued on July 28, it had led to anti-mask protests at almost every school district – 150 people last week in Spokane, another throng at Liberty this week and several dozen at Central Valley on Wednesday.

Another two dozen showed up at the West Valley school board meeting this week.

It didn’t matter that State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal had already provided districts with ample political cover, in the form of a threat to withhold funding for districts who defied the mandate.

During a board meeting last week, Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard explained to anti-mask parents that the district could lose most of its funding.

A man in the audience answered instantly.

“How much will you lose if we pull our kids?” the man said.

Then came Wednesday’s news from Olympia: Most school employees must be vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs. The mandate extends to public and private K-12 schools, most child care and early learning centers.

Exemptions will be allowed on medical and religious grounds. As of Thursday, the state superintendent’s office hadn’t released details on how those exemptions will be handled.

“We are waiting right now to see what that exemption looks like,” said Robert Roettger, superintendent of the Cheney School District. “Then we will communicate that to our staff.”

It’s unclear when the state will clarify the language around exemptions, but with school only a few weeks away, the stakes are high. Looser requirements might defeat the purpose of the vaccine mandate, while overly stringent requirements might force some teachers to resign.

“It is too early to comment now on the potential impacts for staffing,” Mead Superintendent Shawn Woodward said in a statement Thursday. “We expect that there may be some, but we don’t know to what extent.”

While the national and state teachers’ unions offered support of the vaccine mandate, local leaders have been silent.

Last week, Spokane Education Association President Jeremy Shay said he was opposed to a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff.

Shay declined to comment Thursday on the issue.

Meanwhile, Rydell was preparing for the best.

This week, West Valley is holding its annual KickStart – a hands-on event that’s designed to build anticipation for the new school year. Because of the pandemic, that didn’t happen a year ago.

“Everyone is ready to have their kids back in school,” Rydell said.

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