Most Washington school employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, but schools still 'strained'

<p><p>OLYMPIA – About 90% of school employees in Washington have been vaccinated against COVID-19, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said Thursday.</p></p><p><p>Despite the good news on vaccination rates, Reykdal said schools are still “very strained” because of the number of students having to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure. Schools don’t have the capacity to fully contact trace, so many students have to quarantine and miss school because they had a close contact, Reykdal said.</p></p><p><p>“We believe that these kids are healthy and safe,” he said, “but the disruption to learning … is immense.”</p></p><p><p>The state lost 470 teachers and staff due to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate that went into effect more than a week ago. Gov. Jay Inslee mandated K-12 educators and staff be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 or risk losing their jobs.</p></p><p><p>On top of teachers educating new students and evaluating their social-emotional learning from the last year, some now participate in contact tracing and send home kids who came in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 , Reykdal said.</p></p><p><p>He called it “unsustainable.”</p></p><p><p>“There are a lot of people second-guessing whether this profession is for them, at this pace,” Reykdal said.</p></p><p><p>To assist with that effort, the state is looking to ease restrictions on quarantining for those possibly exposed to the virus.</p></p><p><p>The Department of Health announced Wednesday it would require schools to begin using a seven-day quarantine with a negative test.</p></p><p><p>That means students and staff who have a close contact with a COVID-19 case must quarantine at home for seven days and receive a negative COVID-19 test on day five before returning to school, <a href=”https://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/1600/coronavirus/820-105-K12Schools2021-2022.pdf” target=”_blank”>according to new DOH guidance</a>.</p></p><p><p>If the test is negative and the person remains asymptomatic, they can return to the school after seven days.</p></p><p><p>Health officials encouraged parents to get their kids who are eligible vaccinated as a way for them to stay in school. Fully vaccinated students who are exposed to someone with COVID-19 but do not have symptoms, do not have to quarantine. Instead, these students can continue going to classes in a mask and get tested five to seven days after their exposure .</p></p><p><p>Previously, the department had given school districts the choice between a 14-day quarantine, a 10-day quarantine or a seven-day quarantine with a negative test. In Spokane, the district has been using a 10-day quarantine for everyone, spokesperson Sandra Jarrard wrote in an email.</p></p><p><p>Shortening that time allows kids to get back to school sooner, said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID response.</p></p><p><p>Negative test results can come from school testing programs, a health care provider, local health jurisdiction, pharmacy or other community-based test site, according to the guidance. Spokane Public Schools has COVID-19 testing available for symptomatic staff and students by referral, Jarrard said.</p></p><p><p>The Department of Health <a href=”https://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/1600/coronavirus/820-218-K12SupplementalRecommendations.pdf” target=”_blank”>has asked school districts to focus</a> their contact tracing efforts on high-priority areas, where students are not seated 3 feet apart, masking could be inconsistent or gathering of larger groups of students or staff are present for longer periods .</p></p><p><p>This means districts will begin focusing contact-tracing on places like break rooms, lunch areas, extracurricular activities and bus routes. This is instead of focusing on transmission happening just in the classroom, especially if all students are distanced at least 3 feet apart and wearing masks.</p></p><p><p>Outbreaks in schools increased with the surge of the delta variant and the return to in-person classes full-time this fall.</p></p><p><p>There were 189 COVID-19 outbreaks reported in schools between Aug.1 and Sept. 30 this year, resulting in 1,284 cases. </p></p><p><p>“We have a very high level of community transmission and it was even higher during the months of August and September,” Fehrenbach told reporters this week. “We’ve seen over the course of the pandemic that outbreaks among school-aged students correlates directly with the amount of disease in the community.”</p></p><p><p>Fehrenbach said the good news is that most outbreaks had about five cases, which indicates that schools are doing a really good job of layering prevention measures and responding to positive cases.</p></p><p><p>Schools are also still struggling to keep nurses and bus drivers, Reykdal said. He will be asking the Legislature for more funding to bring in more nurses next year.</p></p><p><p>Vaccination rates among those employees are slightly lower than teachers, according to OSPI data.</p></p><p><p>For those “closest to the classroom,” such as teachers, Reykdal said 90% are fully vaccinated. The rates are slightly lower for those outside of the classroom. Those in buildings, such as cafeteria employees, have an 88% rate, and the rest of their employees, such as bus drivers, are at 87%.</p></p><p><p>The state left it up to each school district to decide how to handle accommodations. Many, <a href=”https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2021/oct/23/a-spokane-teacher-is-accused-of-creating-a-hostile” target=”_blank”>including Spokane Public Schools</a>, allowed staff who received a medical or religious exemption to stay on the job if they wore KN95 masks. No employees at Spokane Public Schools <a href=”https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2021/oct/15/vaccine-mandate-spokane-public-schools-makes-accom” target=”_blank”>lost their jobs</a>. About 460 employees in Spokane sought exemptions, and the district was able to accommodate them all. Some left their employment voluntarily.</p></p><p><p>A little over 10% of school employees statewide received either a medical or religious exemption, according to data from OSPI.</p></p><p><p>To help schools keep kids in their classroom, Reykdal said the entire community needs to improve vaccination rates. He said they are striving to reach an 80% vaccination rate among staff and students combined. Those rates may go up as kids aged 5-11 become eligible for vaccines.</p></p><p><p>The Department of Health is planning to work with schools to set up vaccine clinics. Many have already been doing them and will continue to do so, Fehrenbach said.</p></p><p><p>SPS will partner with the Spokane Regional Health District to provide vaccinations for kids aged 5-11 when they become eligible, Jarrard said.</p></p><p><p>“We have anticipated this important work since last spring,” she said.</p></p><p><p>Still, Reykdal said he did not want to see the COVID-19 vaccine required for students until it has full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.</p></p><p><p>Currently, the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15 year-olds is under emergency use authorization at the FDA, and the agency could also grant similar authorization to the pediatric vaccine in the coming week.</p></p><p><p>It will likely take several months for data to accumulate before Pfizer would apply for full approval of the pediatric vaccine. The original Pfizer vaccine for people 16 and older was authorized for emergency use in December 2020, and it wasn’t until August 2021 when the FDA fully approved the vaccine.</p></p>