Want schools to stay open? WA Superintendent says ‘get vaccinated’

Jul 29, 2021, 11:54 AM | Updated: Jul 30, 2021, 2:05 pm
schools open...
Paraeducator Jenny Waliezer helps a first grade student with an assignment at the Green Mountain School on February 18, 2021 in Woodland, Washington. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Schools are going to open in just over a month, but with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations going up again, what can students, parents, teachers and staff expect this fall?

To start, Washington state school districts are set to provide an in-person, five-day-a-week option for any family and student who wants it. That’s what Chris Reykdal, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. He also noted that district may also choose to provide a remote option for families who would prefer it.

“We are going to be in person,” Reykdal said. “It won’t look like it did three years ago, or two years ago, but a little more like last spring where students are still going to have to wear face coverings, as well as staff. The governor just reiterated that yesterday.”

“Obviously we hoped by now we can start giving some choice to families about that. But this Delta variant is, quite frankly, a very different beast than we saw in the earlier variants,” he added.

Reykdal says while it was hoped that we’d have herd immunity and that masks could start to be a thing of the past in schools, this variant complicates things further.

“Based on studies in Israel, England, and at least one study in the United States now, students are big carriers of this variant,” he said. “Thankfully still not getting really sick, but more of them are getting sick, more young people are being hospitalized, but they’re carrying it like any adult would. And therefore they’re shedding virus and infecting others. That’s why we’ve got to stick with masks for a bit longer.”

An added benefit to this fall, Reykdal pointed out, is that every adult has had the chance to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The best thing about this year compared to last year is every adult has a chance to vaccinate,” he said. “We think those numbers are really high for our adults in our schools. All of our students over the age of 12 have had a chance to vaccinate. So not only are we vaccinated in entire levels and we’re masking this fall, along with our other mitigation strategies it will be a very safe and very healthy opening.”

No vaccination requirement at this point

Some government workplaces and private businesses have started requiring their employees to be vaccinated. That’s not the case for school employees in Washington, but Reykdal isn’t opposed to it.

“But that’s a decision that’s going to come from the governor,” he said. “The student vaccine requirement actually comes through our state Board of Health, following a long process with the feds. So we don’t expect that this year at all for students.”

“We don’t expect that there’s any mandate for vaccine for students this year, even the ones who are currently eligible, but it is within the legal authority of governors across the country to require public employees to vaccinate, or go through routine testing if they choose not to vaccinate,” he clarified. “And I do think that would be appropriate given the public health crisis we face today.”

Reykdal also made it clear that while he supports mandatory vaccines, he also believes in an individual’s right to have an option out of it.

“In this case, what you see coming down from the federal government and others is that employees will be required to test routinely,” he said. “If they’re not going to vaccinate, which is their right, they have to go through aggressive, regular testing, and that would be an appropriate response.”

In speaking about Washington State University’s football coach, who has publicly said he’s not vaccinated but has not shared his reasoning, Reykdal sees the lack of transparency as an issue.

“I wish that coach at WSU would show some more leadership and do this, based on the science. If he has another reason, I certainly understand that, and I wish he would express it,” he said. “But unfortunately, when public leaders and high paid leaders don’t explain their reasoning and take an action in violation of the obvious science, it empowers other people to believe the misinformation. And that’s what’s frustrating about that is a lack of transparency.”

Better prepared in case of shutdowns

If the state finds itself in a position where remote learning would be necessary, Reykdal did say that we’re better prepared for it now.

“By the time we got through about the middle of last year, we had deployed over 300,000 devices to those who didn’t have it. So we really almost eliminated that hardware gap,” he said.

“We still can’t close the connectivity gap because there are places that are just absolute deserts for high speeds. So it is still not an equitable environment,” he added. “That’s why I’m working so hard to make sure our schools are open for every family who wants it. But let’s face it, if we had to go through that again, which I don’t expect, we are significantly more prepared than we were a year ago.”

For now, Reykdal says schools will continue to require masks or face coverings since they have been shown to “significantly” reduce the volume of droplets that leave your person and can infect others.

“It’s a no brainer,” he said. “Masks create more safety. They’re not perfect. From a health standpoint, the science is very clear about masking and distancing.”

“We don’t anticipate any full shutdowns at all,” he added later. “Again, a year ago, we didn’t have any one vaccinated. Now we’ve got this huge percentage of folks in most counties, some are still lagging. We have a lot of our middle school and high school students who are vaccinated, and that number continues to grow. So we don’t expect to have to do any kind of shutdown.”

However, if more people don’t get vaccinated and people don’t mask up, there will be more quarantining, which Reykdal says then leads to a loss of learning.

“The irony is, if we don’t get more people vaccinated and we don’t mask up, what you will see is this reality that we’ll have quarantining,” Reykdal said. “We will have more outbreaks, and therefore students will have to be dismissed for 10 to 14 days, immediately hit that switch and jump to remote learning. It will be very disruptive to learning.”

“The best thing we can do to keep schools open, keep everyone there in person, and to have the continuity of learning and recovery of learning is to get vaccinated if you’re eligible, to wear your face covering, everybody,” he added.  “… So, together, we actually do things that help each other. That’s that sense of common good that I think is being lost in all of the talking points and all of the rhetoric that we see coming at us just about every day now.”

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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Want schools to stay open? WA Superintendent says ‘get vaccinated’