Clark County superintendents urge state to speed up COVID-19 vaccines for teachers

The request comes as districts move to increase in-person learning for other grade levels over the next two months

CLARK COUNTY — Facing increasing pressure from parents to get children back into the classroom, school districts are also hearing from educators concerned about the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Last week, the Washington State Department of Health and Gov. Jay Inslee released updated guidelines for who can line up next to receive the COVID-19 vaccines. 

A letter from the superintendents of Clark County’s two largest school districts urged the state to accelerate COVID-19 vaccinations for K-12 teachers. File photo
A letter from the superintendents of Clark County’s two largest school districts urged the state to accelerate COVID-19 vaccinations for K-12 teachers. File photo

The guideline currently allows for high-risk critical workers over the age of 50 to receive the vaccine in Tier B2 of Phase 1, including K-12 teachers, but those under 50 would be required to wait until Tier B4 in April.

On Monday, the superintendents of Clark County’s two most populous school districts sent a letter to Gov. Inslee and Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah, urging them to move teachers higher up in the vaccine priority list.

“As stated since the start of the emergency proclamations, school district employees are essential workers,” wrote Evergreen Superintendent Mike Merlino and Vancouver Superintendent Steve Webb in the joint letter. “To reopen the economy and address pre-K through 12th grade learning loss, the State of Washington must reopen its public schools. In doing so, the state’s top priority must be keeping our staff, students, families and communities safe and healthy.”

Combined, the two school districts serve almost 50,000 students in Clark County.

Merlino and Webb urged the state to move all K-12 teachers into Tier B2 of Phase 1, allowing them to receive the vaccinations as soon as February.

At Monday’s Battle Ground School Board meeting, Superintendent Mark Ross noted that people working in their health rooms and COVID isolation rooms would be receiving the vaccine this week. Most of the school nurses have already received the vaccine, Ross said.

While Ross’ signature wasn’t on the Jan. 11 letter to Gov. Inslee, he did say he had read it and agreed with Merlino and Webb.

“We’ve volunteered our facilities and our sites for mass vaccination,” Ross told the board. “We have a committee that’s going to be working with the ESD (Educational Services District), Clark County Health and the superintendents to see if we can put together a plan to try to facilitate that as soon as possible.”

Deputy Superintendent Denny Waters, who is taking over for Ross in July, said the vaccination of the nurses would allow them to administer the vaccine doses, if the districts can find a way to obtain enough of the vaccine for their teachers.

“That appears to be one of the areas that health providers are struggling with, is they don’t have enough people to even give the vaccination,” said Waters. “So, by getting our nurses vaccinated, they can do that.”

The Washington Department of Health released its updated COVID-19 vaccine phases last week. Image courtesy Washington DOH
The Washington Department of Health released its updated COVID-19 vaccine phases last week. Image courtesy Washington DOH

Already, thousands of kindergarten students and those in other grade levels considered at high risk of falling behind have been brought in for limited in-person instruction. Most of the major districts in the county plan to begin bringing first and second graders back for hybrid learning as soon as Jan. 19th.

School districts have faced growing pressure from parent groups, many of whom say the distance learning has left their children struggling to keep up, and put them in a tough spot trying to work and help guide their students through daily classes and assignments.

On the other side, many teachers and the unions that represent them have pushed back, worried that COVID-19 activity remains too high in the community, and puts educators and their families at an elevated risk.

William Baur, a teacher in the Battle Ground School District, said remaining in remote until he could be vaccinated was important, since his mother-in-law had recently been through a traumatic surgery that became infected and required multiple hospitalizations.

“I spent the whole year fearing that she might die before the world would be safe enough for her to visit her granddaughter for the first time,” Baur told the board. “My sole mission is to make my household and community safe for women and men, like my mother-in-law. Those that are most at risk of dying of COVID-19, often separated from their loved ones.”

Rebecca Broyles, a visual arts and technology teacher in the district, wondered if there was a plan in place for what would happen if there were a COVID outbreak in a school.

“Will one death shut down a school or will it take two or three?” Broyles asked. “And will it need to be a student or staff for it to matter?”

Broyles also noted that Battle Ground has been a hotspot for people who have declined to wear masks in public, leading to questions about what might happen if a student or teacher refused to follow safety protocols in the school.

“What will happen when students start expressing their freedoms at school?” she pressed. “Where’s the district wide discipline policy or plan for all of that?”

Erika Uribe is an elementary school music teacher at Maple Grove, and said her role during hybrid learning would be to move between groups of students, checking to make sure they’re logging in and completing assignments.

“Based on … our current schedule, all specialists will see approximately 80 to 120 children every week, six groups of 10 every 30 minutes,” said Uribe. “Even with masks on, I know that my own classroom, I don’t feel has sufficient ventilation for me to feel safe teaching in there all day, and teaching music and teaching movement.”

Uribe added that not all students are struggling with the remote learning environment. Some who previously were too shy to open up are now doing so in the comfort of their own homes.

Still, all the educators who spoke Monday said they are eager to be back in the classroom with their students, and acknowledge that, for most children, a physical learning environment is far superior to a remote one.

Even so, they urged caution by the school districts as they moved to bring more children and adults together in enclosed spaces.

A Dec. 31 report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted that cases of COVID-19 in school-aged children has seen an increase as the pandemic spreads across the United States. 

While children remain at a much lower risk of death from the virus, the CDC notes that deaths have occurred, and other children have exhibited symptoms of a condition known as Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C).

The spread of COVID-19 from children to adults has also been documented, though younger children are thought to be less likely vectors for the disease.

In its guidance, the CDC says only that state and local health departments, along with school districts, should weigh the potential health risks of reopening schools against the ongoing difficulties many children are experiencing while out of their classrooms.

Clark County Public Health has said it is working closely with school districts to provide advice on implementing safety protocols, monitoring for outbreaks, and working to close classrooms or schools in the event of one.

Information on outbreaks linked to schools in Clark County is updated each Thursday on the county’s COVID-19 information page.