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90% of Washington school employees vaccinated against COVID-19, but schools still ‘strained’

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 28, 2021

Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, left, holds up a face mask as he speaks at a news conference, along with Gov. Jay Inslee, center, and Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah, right, at the Capitol, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Olympia. Inslee announced that Washington state is expanding its vaccine mandate to include all public, charter and private school teachers and staff, as well as those working at the state’s colleges and universities.  (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, left, holds up a face mask as he speaks at a news conference, along with Gov. Jay Inslee, center, and Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah, right, at the Capitol, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Olympia. Inslee announced that Washington state is expanding its vaccine mandate to include all public, charter and private school teachers and staff, as well as those working at the state’s colleges and universities. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
By Laurel Demkovich and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – About 90% of school employees in Washington have been vaccinated against COVID-19, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said Thursday.

Despite the high vaccination rates, Reykdal said schools are still “very strained” because many students have to quarantine when exposed to COVID-19 .

“We believe that these kids are healthy and safe,” he said, “but the disruption to learning … is immense.”

The state lost 470 teachers and staff due to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate that went into effect more than a week ago. Gov. Jay Inslee mandated K-12 educators and staff be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 or risk losing their jobs.

On top of educating new students and evaluating their social-emotional learning from the last year, some educators now participate in contact tracing to send home children who come in contact with peers who test positive for COVID-19, Reykdal said.

He called it “unsustainable.”

“There are a lot of people second-guessing whether this profession is for them, at this pace,” Reykdal said.

So, the state is looking to limit quarantining for those possibly exposed to the virus.

The Department of Health announced Wednesday it would require schools to begin using a seven-day quarantine with a negative test.

That means students and staff who have a close contact with a COVID-19 case must quarantine at home for seven days and receive a negative COVID-19 test on day five before returning to school, according to new DOH guidance.

If the test is negative and the person remains asymptomatic, they can return to the school after seven days.

Health officials encouraged parents to get their kids, if eligible, vaccinated as a way for them to stay in school. Fully vaccinated students who are exposed to someone with COVID-19 but do not have symptoms, do not have to quarantine. Instead, these students can continue going to classes in a mask and get tested five to seven days after their exposure.

Previously, the department had given school districts the choice between a 14-day quarantine, a 10-day quarantine or a seven-day quarantine with a negative test. Spokane Public Schools had been using a 10-day quarantine , spokesperson Sandra Jarrard wrote in an email.

Shortening that time allows students to get back to school sooner, said Lacy Fehrenbach, the state’s deputy secretary for COVID response.

Negative test results can come from school testing programs, a health care provider, local health jurisdictions, pharmacies or other community-based test sites, according to the guidance. Spokane Public Schools has COVID-19 testing available for symptomatic staff and students by referral, Jarrard said.

The Department of Health has asked school districts to focus their contact-tracing efforts on high-priority areas, where students are not seated 3 feet apart, where masking is inconsistent or where large groups of students or staff gather for longer periods.

This means districts will begin focusing contact tracing in places like break rooms, lunch areas, extracurricular activities and bus routes. This extends the focus of transmission beyond just the classroom, where it is common for all students to be distanced at least 3 feet apart and wearing masks.

Outbreaks in schools increased with the surge of the delta variant and the return to full-time in-person classes this fall.

There were 189 COVID-19 outbreaks reported in schools statewide between Aug.1 and Sept. 30 , resulting in 1,284 cases.

“We have a very high level of community transmission and it was even higher during the months of August and September,” Fehrenbach told reporters this week. “We’ve seen over the course of the pandemic that outbreaks among school-aged students correlates directly with the amount of disease in the community.”

Fehrenbach said the good news is that most outbreaks involved about five cases, which indicates schools are doing a good job of layering prevention measures with responding to positive cases.

Schools are also still struggling to keep nurses and bus drivers, Reykdal said. He will ask the Legislature for more funding to bring in more nurses next year.

Vaccination rates among nurses and drivers are slightly lower than teachers, according to OSPI data.

For those “closest to the classroom,” such as teachers, Reykdal said 90% are fully vaccinated. The rates are slightly lower for those outside of the classroom. Those in buildings, such as cafeteria employees, have an 88% rate, and the rest of the employees, such as bus drivers, are at 87%.

The state left it up to each school district to decide how to handle vaccine exemption accommodations. Many, including Spokane Public Schools, allowed staff who received a medical or religious exemption to stay on the job if they wore KN95 masks. No employees at Spokane Public Schools lost their jobs. About 460 employees in Spokane sought exemptions, and the district was able to accommodate them all. Some left their employment voluntarily.

A little over 10% of school employees statewide received either a medical or religious exemption, according to data from OSPI.

To help schools keep kids in class, Reykdal said the community needs to get vaccinated. He said they are striving to reach an 80% vaccination rate among staff and students combined. Those rates may go up as kids ages 5-11 become eligible for vaccines.

The Department of Health is planning to work with schools to set up vaccine clinics. Many have already been doing them and will continue to do so, Fehrenbach said.

SPS will partner with the Spokane Regional Health District to provide vaccinations for kids ages 5-11 , Jarrard said.

“We have anticipated this important work since last spring,” she said.

Still, Reykdal said he did not want to see the COVID-19 vaccine required for students until it has full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

The Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds is under emergency use authorization at the FDA, and the agency could also grant similar authorization to the pediatric vaccine in the coming weeks.

It will likely take several months for data to accumulate before Pfizer would apply for full approval of the pediatric vaccine. The original Pfizer vaccine for people 16 and older was authorized for emergency use in December 2020, and it wasn’t until August when the FDA fully approved the vaccine.

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.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories 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.

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