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State Superintendent: Consequences for not reopening ‘getting higher and higher’

First grade students practice their reading skills at the Green Mountain School on Feb.18, 2021 in Woodland, Washington. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, President Biden asked all states to prioritize teachers for the COVID vaccine. Moments after that announcement, Governor Jay Inslee sent out a statement saying that educators, school staff, and licensed child care workers have been added to the current vaccine tier in Washington.

Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show that’s good news, but it will create a bit of a bottleneck for a short time until supply ramps up.

“On balance, this is really good news,” Reykdal said. “We have been asking for prioritization of educators through this. We were about three weeks away under the current phases, so this speeds things up. Educators can go quickly now.”

“The challenge is we didn’t get more vaccine,” he added. “And this adds about 200,000 more folks to the existing tier of eligible people in our state, in addition to those in the very first tier, as you recall, first responders, medical providers, anyone in that tier who hasn’t yet been vaccinated can still continue to do that. So it’s building a little bigger backlog until the J&J [vaccine] comes in and a couple of these other providers build more capacity.”

As far as the continued push for a return to in-person learning across Washington state, Reykdal thinks this move to get the vaccine to school staff will help districts keep building momentum.

“This week, we got over the 40% mark of our students in classrooms, and that’s a really good thing,” he said. “We’ve been building this great momentum. It’s much higher than that in elementary school, of course, and quite a bit less than high schools. It’s harder to cohort high school students.”

“So this builds more confidence. We keep saying you don’t have to have vaccinations to safely open schools, and we’ve demonstrated that with real data and great outcomes. But for a lot of communities, they really wanted this,” he continued. “This is the thing that they wanted to make as a baseline for their return, and we think it will help expedite.”

The hope, as President Biden expressed, is to have all educators receive at least the first dose of the two-dose series by the end of March.

“This doesn’t happen overnight, and I’ve got to remind everybody when we say ‘coming back,’ it’s generally still in hybrid, a couple days a week for students because we have to follow all the other safety protocols, including six feet of physical distancing,” Reykdal clarified.

Kids, he pointed out, are not vaccinated and can still bring the virus home to vulnerable parents or grandparents, so the safety protocols will remain in place.

“We are getting more kids back, but they shouldn’t expect every student back every day, all day. That is unrealistic in most communities,” Reykdal said.

School districts in Washington state have all been planning for a return, and were required to submit an updated plan to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction as of Tuesday.

“There’s federal dollars contingent upon those plans for reopening, again, mostly in hybrid,” Reykdal explained. “So we definitely believe they are ready to go in most places. Some of them were waiting on vaccine as part of the safety protocol and their local agreements. And I suspect there are still some that are going to struggle even with vaccines becoming more ubiquitous.”

“But the consequences for them are getting higher and higher,” he added. “They’re risking federal dollars. They’re risking enrollment funds down the road because of parents who may not feel comfortable with a hybrid model, if it persists. And there’s talk of parents saying, ‘next school year, if this isn’t back to what I expect then I’m finding other options.'”

Reykdal believes the districts who are not open yet will get there with this vaccine prioritization update. And if they don’t return, they will face “pretty powerful natural consequences, mostly financial.”

For those districts who already said they will not be returning to in-person learning in any form this school year, Reykdal says they need to reconsider that decision.

“This is a really fluid situation, it has been since the beginning of this, and so definitive proclamations about things that are months away are never a good idea,” he said. “This is a game changer for protecting the safety of our staff, and given the science of this around young kids, every district has a really viable option here to get at least their K-5 open, if not all their middle and high school students.”

“So they should revisit that. And they should be working really hard to reopen schools to in-person learning,” he said.

At schools that have returned, which includes about a third of all students statewide, there have been cases, Reykdal said, but it’s been fairly well controlled. An “outbreak” in Washington is defined as two or more students who aren’t in the same family, he explained.

“When people think outbreak, ‘my gosh, it must be crazy,’ it’s literally two students,” Reykdal said. “And that’s the bulk of them. Most cases we see in school for outbreaks are two or three students, or two or three people.”

There are protocols in place for getting those students or educators into quarantine, and Reykdal says there have been no hospitalizations so far from any COVID exposure in the school setting statewide.

“We track that data really closely now with local health officials. We have pilot districts all over the state now who are using routine COVID tests to see if this is spreading in their schools, and so far, tremendous success in keeping these cases down,” he said.

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To close, Reykdal’s message to school staff, students, and families is there “are no devils in this process.”

“Everyone, for the last year, has wanted what is best for their own health, for their students, for their families and their communities. And we can do that simultaneously while we keep ramping up in-person openings,” he said. “We can do it pre-vaccine, and we can certainly speed that up with vaccine, but just really encourage everybody not to think about this as some devil out there who wanted something other than health and safety and success.”

“They have different perspectives they bring. They have different reasons why they want certain things in place,” he continued. “And I know the bargaining table is the place where that happens, and we’ve got to make sure that they do that well. But we need to keep opening school. It’s really important for students academically, and mental health, and our educators and our communities, so keep getting after it, work hard. The vaccine is another layer of mitigation, but we’ve got to press through this very, very hard conversation, especially in the Puget Sound.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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