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Bellevue students return to classroom, teachers push to wait until vaccination

A kindergarten room sits empty at Rogers International School on Oct. 21, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Some teachers in the Bellevue School District say they will not go back to the classroom until they have been vaccinated, even as the district moves forward with plans to bring second graders back to the classroom Thursday.

Washington Education Association asks to prioritize teachers for COVID vaccine

“Any time I go into the building, I’m putting my family at risk — so my husband, my kids,” said Sheryl Elrod, a kindergarten teacher in the district.

Elrod added that bringing students back this early and for just a few hours of in-person learning doesn’t make sense because the quality of education will actually be worse than online learning.

“When we return to the building, because of all the mitigation measures, and the social distancing, and all of the temperature taking, and hand washing, and all of the things that are going to need to happen, in two and a half hours as far as academics goes, I’m going to be able to offer them a story and a worksheet,” Elrod said.

KIRO 7 TV reports that the school plans to bring in substitutes if needed.

“Every one of our schools has a substitute plan in place, so we’ll be using substitute educators,” Superintendent Ivan Duran said.

At this point in the vaccine rollout in Washington state, only those 65 or older or people 50 and older who live in a multigenerational household are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Teachers who are 50 years or older but do not live in a multigenerational household are not eligible until the next tier, and younger teachers are not eligible until even later.

Families, students, teachers, school staff and administrators across King County have expressed feelings of fear and uncertainty in response to planning a return to in-person learning during the pandemic, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County. However, the state’s guidance has not changed in response to the expanded vaccine eligibility nor to the emergence of more infectious COVID-19 variants.

“When available, COVID-19 vaccination can help lower risk to school staff in addition to, but not as a replacement for, effective implementation of the COVID-19 safety guidelines required by the Governor,” according to a recent blog post on Public Health Insider. “Currently, vaccine supplies are limited nationally and in Washington State. Vaccine prioritization guidance (and any changes thereto) for school staff will be made by the Washington State DOH. King County will facilitate local implementation of that guidance.”

Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer and author of the post on Public Health Insider, says the risks of in-person learning must be weighed against the benefits and the harms from not having in-person attendance on students’ emotional, social, academic, and physical well-being.

“For this reason, CDC recommends that K–12 schools be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures have been employed and the first to reopen when they can do so safely,” the post continues. “It is also crucial to provide families and students the option of remote instruction for those who are the most vulnerable to the risk of COVID-19 transmission and its associated impacts.”

School districts ultimately make the decision to return to classrooms, not the public health department.

The KIRO Radio Newsdesk contributed to this report.

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