For teachers in Spokane and the rest of the state, the confusion surrounding distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine just got worse.
Earlier this week, the Washington State Department of Health announced that all school employees, regardless of age, would be eligible for a vaccine as soon as February, provided they were returning for in-person instruction.
The news was applauded by educators, administrators and teachers’ unions, not to mention parents who endured almost five months of distance learning.
However, with no explanation, the state revised its vaccine flowchart and pushed some school employees – those under 50 and who aren’t considered high-risk – back down the line. In the new timeline, the same group of educators and staff is now forecast to be eligible for vaccines in “spring/summer.”
Meanwhile, employees of Coeur d’Alene Schools got their first shots last week, with more inoculated since then.
“I’m sure it’s in the hundreds,” Scott Maben, director of communications for the district, said of the vaccinations.
Maben couldn’t offer a timetable for completing the inoculations, but it’s clear that Idaho schools are ahead of those in Washington, mostly because that state prioritized teachers along with front-line medical works and first responders.
More than 1 million Washington residents over the age of 65 (or 50 and older in multigenerational households) were eligible for the vaccine as of Monday in the first tier of Phase 1B; however, the state is expecting to receive only 93,300 first doses this week.
The majority of vaccine doses already in the state are going to long-term care facility staff and residents, or to health care workers and first responders.
State health officials have said that vaccine distributors can move on to additional tiers in Phase 1B, which include K-12 teachers, once they have finished at least half of the initial tier.
There are no estimates from the federal government about when vaccine production will speed up and more doses will come to the state, but for now the math is clear: there’s not enough vaccine for everyone who wants it.
“We are asking people to be patient as those supplies increase in the coming weeks,” Michele Roberts, assistant secretary of health who is leading the vaccine rollout, told reporters Thursday.
The bottom line for schools: Be prepared for anything.
“We certainly appreciate that educators have been prioritized in the distribution schedule,” Adam Swinyard, superintendent at Spokane Public Schools, said before the state’s new vaccine timeline with later estimates for teachers had debuted.
Swinyard said he was optimistic that the district would be prepared to efficiently distribute the vaccines once the supply chain grows.
“We’ll be setting up vaccine sites in some of our schools, and we’ve already reached out to staff to get those going,” Swinyard said.
Jeremy Shay, president of the Spokane Education Association, said that teachers and staff “certainly want to have access” to the vaccines.
Shay said there was some concern about making the vaccines mandatory, though.
“Some want vaccinations right now, but we also have members who don’t want to be vaccinated,” Shay said.
In Coeur d’Alene last month, the school district surveyed its 1,400 employees. Of the 63% who responded, about 1 in 5 said they were not interested in being inoculated.
However, more than 60% said they wanted the vaccination as soon as possible; another 17% said they want the shots but prefer to wait, Maben said.
The state teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association, took a stronger stance.
In a statement last week, the organization said “it’s important that we vaccinate teachers fully before we start sending kids back to school.”
S-R reporter Arielle Dreher contributed to this story.
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