State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

State schools chief urges a vaccine mandate for teachers

The superintendent of public instruction says the governor should require vaccinations for school employees.

OLYMPIA — The leader of Washington’s public schools on Thursday urged Gov. Jay Inslee to require that all public school employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face the loss of their jobs.

In a letter, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal “strongly” encouraged the governor to compel all teachers and staff in public schools to provide proof they have received a COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 18 as a condition of employment — the same mandate Inslee issued earlier this week for state workers and health care providers.

“With the continued increase in cases of COVID-19 across our state due to the highly contagious delta variant, students losing precious time learning in-person with their educators and peers because of quarantine or, potentially, school building closures is a real threat,” he wrote.

Imposing a mandate, Reykdal wrote, “will make our schools safer and reduce the possibility of harmful disruptions in learning.”

Reykdal planned to hold a news conference at 9 a.m. Friday to discuss the request.

On Monday, Inslee issued a proclamation requiring an estimated 60,000 state employees and 400,000 health care and long-term care workers to be vaccinated by mid-October or face firing. The order does not apply to elementary or secondary schools. However, because it covers health care settings, it would apply to nurses’ offices on any school campus.

The mandate contains exemptions for religious and medical reasons. Reykdal said those should be extended to school employees, too.

The governor did not initially include primary and secondary public schools in the vaccine mandate because his office was focused on state employees, and those who work in private health care and long-term care, said Tara Lee, Inslee’s communications director.

“As with all this around COVID, we continue to look for ways to ensure the health and safety of all Washingtonians,” she wrote in an email. “We believe that as many people as possible should be vaccinated, especially those who work with vulnerable populations. We will continue to look at policies to increase the vaccination rate, but we do not have plans to make any new announcements this week.”

Vaccine requirements are taking root in public and private settings across the nation, including in education.

In California, where classes got underway this week in many schools, all teachers and school workers, including those in private schools, must now show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or be tested for the coronavirus weekly. California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued that order Wednesday.

In Washington, students will start to return to classrooms later this month and right after Labor Day.

A spokeswoman for the Washington Education Association — the statewide union for certificated teachers — has not stated a position on a mandate and did not take a stance on Reykdal’s request.

“The COVID vaccine is a critical tool in the fight to end the pandemic and WEA has encouraged everyone who can to get vaccinated immediately,” spokeswoman Julie Popper said in an email.

Although school districts are empowered to mandate vaccination and testing for their workers if they want, none has yet.

“We support the vaccination of staff as a way to support the overall health and safety of our work force,” emailed Kathy Reeves, spokeswoman for the Everett Public Schools.

The district has actively promoted vaccination efforts, she said. Next week, it will hold its third on-site vaccination clinic at Evergreen Middle School for anyone 12 and older.

Even if Inslee issues the requested mandate, districts will still need to negotiate elements of its implementation with unions representing teachers, classified staff and other employee groups.

That’s why Reykdal hopes Inslee will move swiftly.

“In consulting with several of our partners and stakeholders in K–12 education, I was told unequivocally that if you are going to make the decision to require the vaccine for school employees, it will make a significant difference if that decision is made as soon as possible,” he wrote.

“Our school districts are making staffing decisions for fall and negotiating agreements with their labor partners now. Providing districts with as much notice as possible will help to ensure a smoother implementation of the order for districts and school employees.”

In the Edmonds School District, which includes Lynnwood, the teachers union does not have a position on a vaccine mandate, its leader said.

“Members have varying beliefs about it,” Andi Nofziger-Meadows, president of the Edmonds Education Association, wrote in an email. “It’s hard for me to say whether or not EEA would support a vaccine mandate, as that is something we would discuss with members.”

If the governor chose to pursue it, the details would have to be bargained locally, she said.

“An important consideration is that it could be very disruptive to classrooms once the school year gets started if some educators choose to leave their jobs rather than get vaccinated,” she wrote. “A vaccine mandate in the middle of August is not good timing any way you look at it!”

Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; @dospueblos

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