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Washington teachers still skeptical after Inslee calls for return to classrooms

"Educators are scared," said one union president, after Inslee announced increases in school resources to encourage the reopening of in-person learning.

FEDERAL WAY, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday called for more of Washington’s school districts to allow for in-person learning.

Inslee made the comments during a press conference where he discussed state resources for schools. He announced that about 50 more school districts are participating in the state’s COVID-19 testing program.

The governor hopes the new initiatives will help parents and educators feel more secure sending their children back to the classroom.

“Today, we are expanding the COVID testing assistance that we can provide to schools and school districts,” Inslee said. “This is part of our ongoing effort to return to in-person instruction, and it obviously increases access to testing, both for educators and students.”

Inslee also pointed to the school districts that have brought students back to the classroom as proof that in-person learning can happen safely.       

RELATED: Inslee lauds Pierce County school's COVID-19 safety measures

“We already have over 200,000 students who are today receiving a significant amount of in-person instruction. And that is increasing every day. And the reason it is increasing every single day is that we are learning that we can do this safely, and we are learning that we can do this safely all over the state of Washington.”

Shannon McCann, president of the Federal Way Education Association, said safety is a top priority, especially in a district as diverse as Federal Way.

“We are the most diverse district in the entire state,” McCann said. “So when we talk about our responsibility to safety, educators have such an obligation and responsibility to make sure the schools are safe, and that requires adequate funding from the state because we know our communities of color have been disproportionally impacted by COVID-19.”

McCann said the need for safety goes beyond more testing.

“So many of our schools, not just in Washington, but across the nation, are simply outdated. We have a concern about the air we’re breathing and how it’s circulated on a good day, let alone a global deadly pandemic,” McCann said. “At this point, so many of our students actually know someone who’s had COVID, or has passed away from COVID. So we’re very concerned about the high fidelity of safety measures in every single building.”

One of the biggest concerns about reopening schools has been vaccinating those who work in the schools. Inslee said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not list vaccinating teachers as a requirement for returning to the physical classroom.

But McCann says this approach simply puts Washington’s educators behind the curve.

“Educators in more than half the nation have access to the vaccine, and Washington state educators are still waiting. We have parents asking us, hey, aren’t teachers getting the vaccine? And we say, no, in Washington state, that’s not the case.”

Now, educators hope that state officials including Inslee and State Superintendent Chris Reykdal act on teachers' concerns.

“I really hope Inslee and Reykdal, with all the confidence they pay teachers, will actually sit down and listen to us and have some substantive policy changes as a result,” McCann said.

Reykdal's office said he has advocated for teachers and school staff to be prioritized in the schedule.

According to a KING 5/SurveyUSA poll, 43% of Washington residents said that the decision to return to the classroom should depend on local factors. About 26% of those polled believed that schools should be open and 25% would like to see all the schools closed.