School leaders wonder what’s next now that the vaccine mandate deadline passed

MEDICAL LAKE, Wash. – Keeping kids safe is what everyone wants, and it’s been tough to do during a pandemic. When transmission rate is high in the community, it’s also high in the schools.

“People start to worry about students being in their classrooms. ‘Am I being protected enough?’ It really causes some stress and anxiety amongst your staff as well as your families and kids. And it’s a burden to carry,” said Tim Ames, the superintendent of the Medical Lake School District.

Things are settling down now in area schools, but there is still a lot of work being done behind the scenes.

That burden kept growing when Governor Jay Inslee announced a vaccine mandate for school staff in mid-August. It was another hurdle for schools to jump over while also dealing with COVID.

“Honestly, it’s not easy. I sit in the superintendent’s meeting last week listening to my peers. You really feel like you’re running some clinics, basically a testing clinic,” Ames said.

The vaccine mandate ended up being a lot for schools to figure out. Human resources staff had to sit down with each staff member asking for an exemption and had to figure out accommodations.

Some schools saw people leave because of the vaccine mandate, but not as many as they’d originally thought.

“I think initially, there was some concern about what would we lose staff at a time when we don’t have staff to lose,” explained Michael Dunn, the superintendent of NEWESD 101, which oversees more than a hundred public and private schools in Eastern Washington.

Dunn said there hasn’t been a mass exodus, but for some smaller districts, he said they’re losing some important staff in key places. Some places are now struggling with transportation because they don’t have enough staff. Dunn didn’t specifically mention where but said it is smaller districts.

Another initial concern was the short timeline between the announcement and the deadline.

However, very few employees left their jobs because of the mandate and unvaccinated staff now have accommodations, such as wearing KN95 masks and weekly testing. That’s what the Medical Lake School District will do.

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For the school district, of its 270 employees, Ames said 37 have approved exemptions. They have yet to lose an employee, but could possibly lose one soon.

“We feel lucky we didn’t have to go there, but it’s been a burden for us to be in charge of the exemptions, going through the exemptions, making sure we’re doing our best to go through them and allowing their accommodations,” Ames said.

Now, that the vaccine mandate deadline has passed, there are still concerns for the future.

“Now we have to make sure our employees, through our supervisors, are following accommodations and then the question will be, what if an employee is not following the accommodation? Then, what’s the next step? It’s been a challenge,” Ames said.

Through all the challenges they’ve been through, Ames said his district, staff and students are handling things well.

“I’m pleased with how we’re handling it. People are adjusting and moving forward,” Ames said.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said it is gathering numbers of vaccinations and exemptions from all school districts. It plans to have a dashboard up and running for people to look at later this month.

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