Gov. Jay Inslee stands at a podium. (Photo: Emerald archives)

State Mandates Vaccinations for School System Employees, Expands Mask-Wearing Indoors

by Elizabeth Turnbull

On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a vaccination mandate for K–12 educators and workers, an expansion of the indoor mask mandate, and a vaccination requirement for individuals in the State’s higher education institutions and for most childcare providers. 

Similar to Inslee’s Aug. 9, announcement, which dictates that most State workers need to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 in order to maintain their employment, today the Governor expanded this requirement to K–12 educators, school staff, coaches, bus drivers, school volunteers, and others working in school facilities, who will have until the same date to become fully vaccinated or lose their jobs. 

“We have kids who are under the age of twelve who are unable to get vaccinated,” Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah said at a press conference Wednesday. “The challenge that we’ve had is when kids go to school and they are unvaccinated, then masking really is one of your tools, but the other tool we have is adults around those kids [being vaccinated].”

The requirement applies to public, private, and charter schools but does not impact students and does not include tribal schools. While some individuals with medical or religious concerns may be given some leeway, options to dodge the mandate are limited and most individuals who refuse to comply with the mandate will be laid off.

Union negotiations are also limited to bargaining for time off to receive the vaccine or to recover from symptoms of the vaccine. The vast majority of people who leave their positions because they do not get the vaccine will not be eligible for unemployment benefits, according to Gov. Inslee.

Worldwide, officials and civilians have raised questions around the ethics of mandating vaccinations as vaccine hesitancy remains and the threat of the delta variant increases.

Amid differing perspectives on vaccination mandates and the extent to which they should be carried out, government officials have not always resorted to mandates that threaten layoffs. Pres. Joe Biden announced July 29 that all federal employees and contractors are required to be fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, however, he offered cash incentives and the alternative of regular testing as other options.

Up to this point education system employees in the state have not had to disclose their vaccination status. Based on informal assessments, Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said on Wednesday that he was confident that over 70% of the school system’s certificated staff are vaccinated statewide. Currently, he estimated that roughly 40,000 to 50,000 of the state’s education system employees and contracted workers still have yet to be vaccinated.

On Wednesday, Inslee also announced that staff, faculty, and contractors in Washington’s higher education institutions along with most childcare and early learning providers who serve children from multiple households are also required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. This includes workers at licensed, certified, and contracted early learning and childcare programs and workers at license-exempt early learning, childcare, and youth-development programs in addition to contractors like coaches, volunteers, trainers.

Although the new year and vaccines brought with them hopes of a maskless city, Inslee is also expanding the existing statewide indoor mask mandate to apply to vaccinated individuals indoors beginning Monday, Aug. 23, and the Department of Health is urging people to also wear masks in crowded outdoor spaces. 

“We know that masks will help diminish the threat of chaos in our lives. It’s going to help us turn the corner and suppress, to some degree, this virus,” Gov. Jay Inslee said on Wednesday. “But we need to be clear: ultimately there’s one way out of this process and it’s through vaccination, and the sooner we realize that the sooner we will get this in a manageable situation.”

Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing so consistently.

📸 Featured Image: Gov. Jay Inslee speaks. (Photo: Emerald archives)

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