A KN95 mask. Some school districts will require them for employees exempted from the imminent vaccination requirement. (Wikimedia Commons)

A KN95 mask. Some school districts will require them for employees exempted from the imminent vaccination requirement. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mandate won’t keep unvaccinated teachers out of classrooms

Some Snohomish County school districts will require masks and COVID tests for employees to keep their jobs.

Unvaccinated teachers will be in classrooms.

Unvaccinated bus drivers will be behind the wheel.

And a few in both professions might be fired.

That’s the situation looming in school districts across Snohomish County ahead of next Monday’s deadline for employees to prove they’ve received the jab against COVID-19 — or an exemption — if they want to keep their jobs.

It’s an unsettled time, more so in some districts than others.

In Edmonds, as elsewhere, school officials and union leaders are scrambling on multiple fronts. They are contacting workers to figure out why they have not turned in vaccination documents or sought an exemption. Simultaneously, they are drawing up contingency plans if it turns out they have to fire them.

Last Thursday, the Edmonds district warned parents of a potential disruption to bus service as they planned for a loss of a couple dozen drivers. On Friday, officials reported 25 paraeducators, 26 bus drivers, 13 teachers and five custodians had not cleared up their status and faced termination Oct. 18 if they didn’t act.

Gov. Jay Inslee set the timeline in the vaccine mandate issued in August. It applies to state employees and health care workers, as well as those working in educational settings, including public, private and charter schools, most child care and early learning facilities, and higher education.

Workers have until Oct. 18 to provide proof of full vaccination or an exemption for religious or medical reasons. Absent one or the other, they could face termination.

Lawsuits targeting the legality of the vaccine requirement have been filed in state and federal courts. A paraeducator in the Mukilteo School District and an employee of the Sultan School District are among dozens of plaintiffs in the federal case.

Meanwhile, school districts are responding to the mandate in different ways. Officials seem intent on limiting disruptions and avoiding terminations.

Data gathered from districts show a robust number of exemptions have been granted. And most, if not all, have developed accommodations to allow unvaccinated employees with exemptions to keep doing their jobs. However, district officials insist these accommodations are handled on a case-by-case basis.

In Edmonds, 73% of 3,800 employees had been vaccinated or had been granted an exemption as of Oct. 5. There had been 100 requests for exemptions.

Under a memorandum of understanding between the district and the teacher’s union, unvaccinated instructors with exemptions will work remotely in the eLearning or K-8 Remote Academy if they hold the necessary credentials and there is an available spot.

Otherwise, they can continue in their classroom. But they must wear a KN95 mask and face shield, which the district provides, and get a COVID-19 test every Thursday. Masks and weekly tests are also a requirement in separate agreements reached with other unions. Testing — which, notably, is not an option for state workers — is available on school campuses.

When asked why unvaccinated teachers are allowed back in classrooms, a district spokeswoman responded in an email: “For those who are granted a medical or religious exemption, the Edmonds School District will provide reasonable accommodations that balances the employee’s exemption with the district’s responsibilities to keep students and staff safe.”

Andi Nofziger-Meadows, president of the Edmonds Education Association representing teachers, said terms of the agreement are in line with health and safety guidance from the governor and the state Department of Health.

She acknowledged differences of opinion among union members on the volume of exemptions and the added requirements for those who get them.

“I don’t think it’s been divisive, because I think everyone in the community wants to do everything we can to keep our schools open and this is an important step in keeping our schools open,” Nofziger-Meadows said.

In Lake Stevens, 936 of the district’s roughly 1,550 employees are fully vaccinated and 76 had received exemptions as of Sept. 30. Thirty-eight teachers and eight bus drivers who received exemptions will be required to wear KN95 masks because they work in close proximity to children, officials said.

“We are following the guidelines set forth in Gov. Inslee’s state mandate by allowing employees the opportunity to request an accommodation for a sincerely held religious belief or medical need against COVID-19 vaccination,” Superintendent Ken Collins said in an email. “We thoroughly review each accommodation request and have a one-on-one meeting with the employee to understand their request, and to explain the additional health and safety guidelines that may result from an employee being unvaccinated and working with or in proximity to students.”

To assess the situation across the county, The Daily Herald sought data on vaccination rates from every school district. Here is a summary of what was shared:

Arlington: 74% of employees — 667 of 903 — were vaccinated and 129, or roughly 14%, had received an exemption as of Friday. Among teachers, the vaccination rate was 88%, and 37 have accommodations, while the rate for bus drivers was 66%, with 11 exemptions.

Everett: 97.9% of 2,480 workers were vaccinated or had an exemption as of Oct. 11. For teachers, the rate was 98.7% and for bus drivers it was 100%.

Monroe: 91% of 878 employees and contract workers were vaccinated and 64 had received exemptions as of Oct. 1. Among teachers, 330 were vaccinated, 23 had received exemptions. Four teachers had not been vaccinated or granted an exemption and face potential loss of job.

Mukilteo: 85% of 2,503 employees had turned in a vaccination verification or requested an exemption as of Oct. 5. There were 105 exemptions granted, of which 36 went to teachers.

Snohomish: 88% of 1,100 regular employees had been vaccinated as of Oct. 5. Of 116 requests for exemptions, 103 were granted, with 13 going to teachers.

Marysville: 135 of the 2,581 employees had received an exemption as of Oct. 7. Several requests were pending. The district did not release any vaccination figures.

Lakewood: Of 329 employees, 277 were vaccinated and 52 had received exemptions.

Index: Of 14 employees, 13 were vaccinated and one received a medical exemption.

Granite Falls: 83% of employees are vaccinated and 17% are receiving exemptions.

Information from the Darrington, Northshore, Stanwood-Camano and Sultan school districts was not available as of Friday.

Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos

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