All teachers and school personnel in Washington state — including coaches, bus drivers and volunteers — must be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment, under a new policy announced Wednesday by Governor Jay Inslee. The requirement applies to staff regardless of the type of school they work in: public, charter, or private.
The policy is the strictest vaccine mandate yet imposed by a state on teachers and other staff in schools, with only a few exceptions. School staff must be vaccinated before October 18, otherwise staff may be fired.
“We are well past the point where testing is enough to protect people,” said Mr. Enter at a press conference. “We’ve tried. It wasn’t enough for the task ahead of us.” He stressed that 95 percent of patients hospitalized with Covid-19 in Washington were unvaccinated.
Vaccination mandates have been hotly debated across the country, with a quarter of states, generally those led by Republicans, banning vaccine requirements for public employees such as school personnel, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education. But in recent days, some Democratic officials have moved to demand the shots.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has offered teachers the opportunity to vaccinate or test regularly for viruses. City school systems in Los Angeles and Chicago have gone further to require staff vaccination, although there is an exemption procedure for those with debilitating medical conditions or genuine religious beliefs.
Washington’s policy goes beyond California’s. There is no option to opt for regular testing instead of vaccination. However, there are limited exceptions, including for legitimate medical reasons and genuine religious beliefs. Persons who refuse to be vaccinated will be fired.
The state had already announced a mask mandate in schools. It is experiencing a wave of Covid-19 cases that is straining its healthcare system.
Washington has lagged most of the rest of the nation in reopening schools in the past academic year as teacher unions across the state pushed for extended periods of distance learning, stricter virus safety measures in classrooms and access to vaccines for educators. All districts plan to return to face-to-face learning five days a week this fall. Most neighborhoods will reopen in early September.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said she expected local chapters to be able to negotiate some details of the vaccine requirement. The union said in a statement that it “encourages everyone who can to get vaccinated immediately” and stressed the continued importance of other safety measures in schools, such as masks, contact tracing, testing and social distancing.
Jennifer Matter, president of the Seattle Education Association, the teachers’ union in the state’s largest school district, said the union and the state “have a shared interest in creating a vaccine requirement to keep our community safe.”
Ms Matter said her union plans to negotiate with the district about how the mandate will be implemented. Negotiations may include a process for applying for a waiver or provisions for time off to receive a vaccine or recover from side effects, she said.
Leaders of the two national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have said they support vaccine mandates for school staff.
The governor also announced new mandates for employees in the state’s colleges and universities, as well as for many child caretakers. And he announced that the state’s indoor mask mandate will be extended to include vaccinated individuals.