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'Turbulence ahead': State superintendent requests Inslee expand COVID-19 vaccine mandate to school employees

Reykdal also said that he would support a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students, as well, if the state's Department of Health said it was necessary.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal held a press conference Friday to call on Gov. Jay Inslee to mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment for all K-12 public school employees.

Inslee passed down a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirement for state and health care employees on Aug. 9, but K-12 employees weren't included under that proclamation. Employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or find another job.

As teachers and students prepare to head back to school in-person, case rates are rising in Washington residents 19 and younger, mostly due to the delta variant, Reykdal said. 

"There is turbulence ahead and we can see it in the data and the research. We can see it when we don’t follow mask orders. We can see it when we don’t vaccinate," he said.

Currently, district leaders estimate that about 70% of schools' personnel have been vaccinated with vaccination rates for teachers landing somewhere around 75%. 

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Worries students could be forced into quarantine, or whole schools could face shutdowns due to the spread of COVID-19 pushed Reykdal to request the mandate, he said in a letter to Inslee. 

"Especially after a year and a half of remote and hybrid learning, a continuity of in-person instruction will be more important this year than ever," Reykdal wrote.

Reykdal also asked that employees who choose not to get vaccinated be subject to "non-disciplinary dismissal" from their jobs, excluding employees who get a medical or religious exemption. 

Reykdal said union members have asked for more than just those two exemptions, however, he said he doesn't want to offer others.  

In the press conference Friday, Reykdal said many districts supported his mandate, while some were wary the vaccine requirement may drive employees away from schools already short on staff. 

Any future mandates are not expected to cause delays to the start of the school year in any districts around the state. 

A spokesperson from Inslee's office said the governor will likely announce his decision next week.

Julie Popper, a spokesperson for the Washington Education Association (WEA), a union representing public school employees, said the association believes in following the latest recommendations from public health experts. 

"If the governor determines a vaccine mandate is necessary, WEA members will be subject to that order," Popper said. 

The WEA represents more than 95,000 teachers across the state.

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) passed down a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for non-union employees Thursday night in an all-staff email from interim superintendent Brent Jones. 

SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson said Jones has the authority to enact a vaccine mandate for staff, but it would be "subject to bargaining" with the Seattle Education Association union.

According to SPS's union, Seattle teachers "share a mutual interest in a vaccine mandate for all employees in the district," Popper said.