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WA's plan to vaccinate teachers, reopen schools gets mixed reviews

caption: FILE: A student at the Denise Louie Education Center on Thursday, July 16, 2020, along Beacon Avenue South in Seattle.
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FILE: A student at the Denise Louie Education Center on Thursday, July 16, 2020, along Beacon Avenue South in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

A new plan was unveiled on Friday to vaccinate the majority of Washington state's public and private school teachers, and other school staff.

The announcement comes amid growing tensions between school districts that want staff to return to classrooms and educators who worry about safety — especially before they're allowed to get vaccinated. KUOW’s education reporter Ann Dornfeld brings us the details.

This new plan would put dedicated vaccine sites for school staff at Kaiser locations all along the I-5 corridor, as well as in Spokane. That would cover an estimated 70 to 80% of school staff, [Washington's Superintendent of Public Instruction] Reykdal said. That includes private school staff.

Most teachers in Washington state are not eligible yet for vaccinations. This program is supposed to help them easily find and access vaccines when their turn comes. We've seen how hard it can be for people to track down a place to get vaccinated or an appointment to get vaccinated even when they do become eligible. This is supposed to solve that for teachers.

[Teacher] priority has not changed. Right now, school staff ages 50 and over are in the next phase and estimated to get vaccine access by the spring. School staff with multiple underlying conditions will be in the following group. The rest of the school staff will be able to get vaccinated in the second to last group, which is estimated by summer or sooner if we’re getting doses at a far faster clip than we have been getting, which is the goal.

Reykdal says this plan could allow school staff to get vaccinated relatively quickly when it's their turn because they would have these dedicated locations focused on getting them ready to return to classrooms in the fall:

Chris Reykdal: “This opportunity from Kaiser to create really meaningful and dedicated capacity for school employees will make more efficient the ability for all of our school employees to get the vaccine and not stretch that out over months, but rather as little as weeks if we can be super effective at this.”

This has been a sticking point for many teachers and staff members who are being asked to return to in-person instruction. Many teachers say they want the vaccine first, before they come back. Under this plan, is that likely to happen?

It sounds like [being vaccinated before returning] would happen for school staff who are returning in the fall, but not for most school staff who are returning to buildings by the spring quarter. A lot of districts are trying to bring back the youngest grades and in many cases special education students who are not already being served, into buildings part-time over the next month or so.

That leaves a lot of teachers still working from home. Maybe they will be able to wait until they're vaccinated to return to classrooms. But many school staff would also be unvaccinated in classrooms, even under this plan. As a result, unions are really pushing the school districts to convince them that all available safety precautions are in place.

Some school staff are deciding whether they need to just go on leave if they feel especially vulnerable to the virus. The state's largest teachers union, the Washington Education Association, is still saying that they think that teachers and school staff should be able to be vaccinated before they are required to return to buildings.

I'm hearing so much worry from school staff members, very often not just for themselves, but for their families or for their students. They're not convinced that the school is going to be taking all of the required measures that are needed to keep students safe.

They say, ‘CDC can say schools can reopen safely, but the question is, will all the health and safety measures be taken to keep everyone safe in their particular building, or in their particular district?’

Not everyone has that trust or the trust that it will get resolved if they raise an issue. That is what I've heard from a lot of teachers. I've also heard them say, ‘I want to get vaccinated before I return to a building, but I don't want to jump ahead of someone who's 65 years old. I don't want to jump the line, but I don't want to have to go back to a building until I’m vaccinated, and maybe that's the fall. And online learning isn't the best thing ever, but at least people aren't going to die from it.’

It’s a really tough position they feel they're in because they're getting a lot of flack from parents in the community who say ‘Look, all these studies are showing that it's safe to return, and lots of government agencies are encouraging schools to reopen in person, especially for younger students. So why aren't schools open yet?’

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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