Teachers and other school staff returning to in-person school in Washington state could be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine earlier than expected.
Changes to the state Department of Health vaccination plan by Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday moved the state into Phase 1B of the plan, allowing everyone over the age of 65 to receive the vaccine.
The changes also created flexibility for providers administering the vaccine starting in Phase 1B Tier 2. Prior to the changes, only teachers 50 and older were eligible to receive the vaccine, and all other teachers had to wait until Tier 4. Now, providers can combine Tiers 2 and 4, making all school staff eligible for the vaccine regardless of age.
Health officials hope to transition to Tiers 2-4 in late winter or early spring.
The changes are alleviating some concerns from district officials and educators around returning to school, but worries about supply of vaccines remain.
"This is an important step in our efforts to make in-person learning as safe as possible," Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, told The News Tribune in an email. "Still, the timeline for educators to get access to the vaccine remains unclear because of ongoing supply problems. The vaccine is a key piece of a school safety plan that must include full implementation of Labor & Industries requirements and Department of Health guidelines."
In Pierce County, superintendents signed onto a letter to Tacoma-Pierce County health director Dr. Anthony Chen earlier this month, stating the Department of Health guidelines were "too rigid" and requesting assistance to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for all K-12 educators and staff.
Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno, who signed the letter, said that vaccinating all staff at the same time isn't about making it easier to open schools since vaccinations aren't required for schools to open.
Rather, Santorno said she feels teachers who are working in schools and teaching in person need to get the vaccinated just as much as teachers 65 years and older teaching virtually through Tacoma Online.
Sumner-Bonney Lake School District Superintendent Laurie Dent echoed that vaccinations aren't required and some staff have already been in classrooms working with students without a vaccine. Those staff members expressed that getting the vaccine would give them an "added peace of mind," she said.
"When staff learned the news about being made a priority for vaccination, I heard they were relieved that all school employees would be eligible for the vaccine at the same time, no matter their age," Dent said in an email. "Now we need an organized process and coordinated effort at the state level to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine so that every staff member feels comfortable and protected."
Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel said changes to the state guidance will jump start school in terms of "alleviating concern by some of the teachers about their health," but added that until staff are administered the vaccine, he expects ongoing concerns.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal echoed that sentiment in a letter to superintendents and stakeholders on Monday. He applauded the revised vaccination plan but said getting all school employees vaccinated quickly is ambitious and depends on the available supply of the vaccine and infrastructure to deploy it.
"We do not know exactly when there will be enough vaccines available to move to phase B2 — B4, but it will likely be when about 50% of those in B1 have received their first dose of the vaccine," Reykdal said in the letter.
State legislators also signed a bipartisan letter to Inslee earlier this month, urging the governor to revise his guidance so that "all school employees who wish to get a vaccination can receive one."
One of the supporters of the letter, State Sen. Brad Hawkins, the ranking Republican member on the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, said he was grateful for the change by the governor and encouraged a "School Employee Vaccination Day" as the next step.
A Department of Health spokesperson told The News Tribune that if tiers are combined to include all school staff, providers should do so in a way that "promotes equity" — in other words, starting with schools with the highest percentage of children who are on free or reduced lunch, schools that are located in an area with higher risk for social vulnerability to COVID-19 and staff who support learning for children with special health care needs.
When asked if school districts must petition providers to offer the vaccinations, DOH said there is no petition process but providers should "read our prioritization and allocation guide thoroughly to make sure their clinic is meeting the risk protection intent of the state plan."
Asked about vaccinations on Wednesday, Tacoma Public Schools spokesperson Dan Voelpel said the district notified all employees 65 or older they are eligible to get the vaccine. Voelpel said the district still is looking for clarity around timing and requirements.
Seigel said the district has offered all of its Bethel schools to the county as possible vaccination sites but hasn't been given a timeline.
"We don't have control over who's got the vaccine and who's got the needles," he said. "But we're ready to serve in any way possible to get everybody immunized that wants to be immunized."
Olympian reporter Sara Gentzler contributed to this report.
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