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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  K-12 education

Vaccine mandate: Spokane Public Schools makes accommodations for all employees who filed for exemptions

Oct. 15, 2021 Updated Fri., Oct. 15, 2021 at 9:55 p.m.


No employees at Spokane Public Schools will lose their jobs due to the statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

About 460 employees of the school district sought exemptions, and administrators announced the district would be able to accommodate them all as Monday’s mandate deadline approaches. Some employees might not be able to perform the exact same job, but there won’t be any layoffs.

Four employees did leave their jobs due to the mandate, but were not forced out.

“We were able to find an accommodation for employees seeking an exemption,” Sandra Jarrard, the district’s director of communications, said Friday.

It’s a similar scenario at Central Valley School District, where 1,729 employees, or 82%, are vaccinated. The other 360, or 18%, have requested and received exemptions.

“Accommodations have been made and accepted for the exemptions, including standard accommodations like masking and testing,” said Marla Nunberg, the district’s director of communications.

No one has quit, said Nunberg, who added that the vaccination rate for teachers is 87%.

Gov. Jay Inslee mandated that all employees working for public and private K-12 schools be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or obtain a religious or medical exemption, through an accommodation process, by Oct. 18.

Since that August directive, according to Spokane Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard, the district’s human resources department has “worked around the clock” to interview staff to determine the appropriate accommodations.

The district didn’t give numbers, only percentages. Of the 5,200 full- and part-time employees, 90% are fully vaccinated, according to a press release issued Friday.

Another 8% asked for and were granted a religious exemption. And 1.3% were granted medical exemptions.

The school districts’ human resources departments granted accommodations “with consideration given to the staff member’s position and level of interaction with students and with review of guidance from the Department of Health (DOH) and Washington State Labor & Industries (L&I).”

For example, a secretary sitting behind a plexiglass shield might simply need to wear an N95 mask. Employees working with health-impaired children might need face shields and surgical masks, or could face reassignment.

For those in between – including most teachers – some form of enhanced personalized protective equipment, or PPE, “would be a common accommodation,” Swinyard said recently.

Language issued in August by the state superintendent’s office indicated that few requests for exemptions would be denied.

Entitled “Guidance for Employers on Evaluating Religious Accommodation Requests,” it is four pages long.

However, it gets to the point in the third paragraph, which urges school districts to proceed with caution in questioning an employee’s religious beliefs.

It begins: “Federal guidance on religious accommodation encourages employers to presume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincere belief in a religion, unless the employer has a valid, objective reason to question the employee. The employer should review the request on its own merits, initiate discussion with the employee about possible accommodation, and assess whether accommodation is possible.”

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