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News >  K-12 education

Spokane Public Schools superintendent: Lack of vaccines alone won’t stop return of secondary students

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 27, 2021

Adam Swinyard, Spokane Public Schools’ superintendent..   (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Adam Swinyard, Spokane Public Schools’ superintendent..  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A shortage of COVID-19 vaccines for teachers would not be a deal breaker for returning Spokane Public Schools secondary students to buildings five weeks from now, Superintendent Adam Swinyard said Tuesday.

Swinyard emphasized that the March 1 timetable is dependent on several factors – countywide COVID-19 trends, in-school transmission rates, cleanliness of buildings, the availability of substitute teachers and the effectiveness of contact tracing.

“There is no single factor” that would affect the March 1 return, Swinyard said.

However, teachers in Spokane and the rest of the state raised concerns about safety issues even before the school year began. Like administrators, students and families, they are dealing with several unknowns as they consider the timetable for bringing all students back to buildings, at least on a part-time basis.

The biggest variable is the availability and distribution schedule for the COVID-19 vaccine. As of Tuesday, 23 states have made the vaccine available to some or all teachers and staff.

However, Washington is not among them. In fact, the State Department of Health pushed younger teachers farther down the line last week with revised guidance.

As it stands, teachers ages 50 and older – regardless of whether they teach in-person – are scheduled to be inoculated as part of Phase 1B, Tier 2 , with younger educators now two spots further back, on Phase 1B, Tier 4 .

That means that a 49-year-old educator with a room full of kindergartners must wait behind a 51-year-old who teaches from home.

“Why not prioritize those who are teaching in-person?” asked Jeremy Shay, president of the Spokane Education Association, which represents teachers and classified staff who work in Spokane Public Schools.

“That’s our biggest question – we really want to prioritize people who are in-person,” Shay said. “We want them to have access to the vaccine.”

That’s problematic, because Washington has given priority to people 65 and older, and those living in multigenerational households.

That decision was reinforced during Gov. Jay Inslee’s news conference on Tuesday.

A younger teacher shouldn’t get a dose if it means someone who is 65 or older and more at-risk cannot receive one, he said.

“I just do not believe 25-year-old teachers believe they should get in line ahead of their 80-year-old grandparents,” Inslee said.

Meanwhile, Idaho and 22 other states have placed teachers and other school employees ahead of those groups.

Even the timeline has become less clear. Less than a week ago, all teachers were scheduled for shots in February or March; now, older teachers are scheduled for the current “winter” and their younger colleagues for “spring/summer.”

“We’re hopefully going to learn more in the coming days about the availability of the vaccines for teachers,” said Swinyard, who added that the district has been in “close conversation” with the Spokane Regional Health District.

Swinyard said the district is “getting ready to get to the vaccine,” preparing sites and setting up protocols when that day arrives.

“We want to be ready, to be prepared logistically if things move at a faster rate,” Swinyard said.

Neither Shay nor Swinyard offered the slightest hint that unvaccinated secondary teachers would balk at a return to schools, as has happened in Chicago and other districts around the country.

“I can speak to our partnership with the SEA, that it been very collaborative throughout this school year,” Swinyard said.

Those conversations have been ongoing since last fall, when Spokane began to return its youngest learners back to schools. Third-graders are currently phasing back in, with fourth-graders due back beginning on Monday.

Fifth- and sixth-graders will return on Feb. 17, with middle- and high-schoolers back March 1 in a hybrid model that likely includes two days a week in class with the rest online.

That’s both good news and bad, said Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association.

“I have not talked to a single educator who feels that the remote teaching is their best work,” Delaney told The Spokesman-Review. “They do want to be back in person … but it’s challenging right now that some are getting and most are not (getting vaccinated).”

Delaney continued to express frustration with the laggard rollout of the vaccine and the latest setback for teachers, 61% of whom statewide are under the age of 50.

“Certainly one of the concerns that we have, shared by so many Washingtonians … is that we still don’t have that infrastructure in place, that we are struggling with getting shots in the arms of all Washington residents,” Delaney said.

However, Mark Springer, epidemiologist with the Spokane Regional Health District, said Tuesday that he acknowledged the frustration, but added that vaccinations are now moving ahead of the state’s new schedule.

For teachers, that could mean vaccinations ahead of the original spring/summer timeline.

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