Seattle Times article in Education Lab Jan 13, 2021

A bipartisan group of Washington lawmakers and the state’s teachers union are pushing Gov. Jay Inslee and state health officials to bump up teachers and other school staff on the priority list for the coronavirus vaccine.

Right now, more than half of the state’s educators would have to wait until nearly the end of the school year to get their first dose of vaccine. Meanwhile, teachers in New York could start making vaccine appointments as of Monday; some California teachers are expected to be eligible for appointments as soon as Friday.

The push in Washington comes amid an abrupt change in the federal government’s vaccine guidance. On Tuesday, federal officials shifted into overdrive, calling on states to speed up vaccine distribution and expand eligibility to those aged 65 and older and people who are more prone to complications from the virus.

The federal move could spur a faster vaccine rollout in Washington, and officials in Inslee’s office say they’re considering the federal changes on eligibility. But it’s not yet clear how any change would affect where teachers fall in the vaccine line: Under the state’s existing distribution timeline, roughly 60% of the state’s K-12 workforce wouldn’t qualify until April.

Officials in Inslee’s office said Wednesday that teachers may move up on the priority list. “It’s important to get kids back in school, vaccinating all school staff is still a high priority, but moving all educators – including healthy young ones – ahead of individuals with underlying health co-morbidities would be risking more deaths,” said Mike Faulk, spokesperson for Inslee. “If we can increase our supply from the federal government, we may be able to move up the timeframe for all educators and school staff.”

Vaccinating teachers could be especially important given the rise of new coronavirus variants, some experts say, including one that was first detected in the United Kingdom and that has sparked widespread lockdown of schools and colleges there in the past week.

The federal government had previously recommended that states prioritize school employees and other front-line essential workers after health care professionals and people living in long-term care centers.

But Washington’s current guidance would result in an extended vaccination timeline for adults who work in schools. Teachers and other staff who are at least aged 50 could get their first dose in February if they are serving students in person; a Seattle Times analysis suggests that roughly 40% of the state’s 153,000 public school employees are in this age group. All younger employees — teachers, counselors, bus drivers, paraeducators — aren’t eligible until April. Some school nurses have started receiving the vaccine, but others say they’ve had trouble making appointments.

On Monday, state Democratic and Republican lawmakers from both chambers urged Inslee and Department of Health officials to revise the “recent guidance so that all school employees who wish to get a vaccination can receive one in February.”

For many employees, “by the time they are fully vaccinated and gain full protection from the virus, school districts across Washington will be nearing the end of the school year. This is unacceptable,” wrote the group, which includes the Democratic chairs of the state Senate and House education committees, Sen. Lisa Wellman and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, and the Republican ranking members, Sen. Brad Hawkins and Rep. Alex Ybarra.

“It puts our schools in a very, very difficult situation and then that puts our families in a very difficult situation,” Rep. Tomiko Santos said in an interview.

Then, on Tuesday night, the Washington Education Association (WEA) teachers union called on policymakers to make vaccines available to educators “regardless of age.”

“The opportunity to have more vaccine available is good news,” WEA President Larry Delaney said Wednesday, referring to changes to the federal guidance. “We just have to make sure the vaccine actually makes it into the arms of educators. That’s where we’re currently seeing some breakdowns in the system.”

State schools chief Chris Reykdal said he, too, asked Inslee to get teachers vaccinated earlier. He said it makes more sense to start with teachers than it does to vaccinate workers who would have to stay home because their children are learning remotely. “You could put 500,000 shots in arms over the next two months. A huge percentage of those will be those who can’t go to work … because they have to stay home with their kids,” he said.

Prioritizing more teachers, he said, would “jump-start the recovery.”

Some schools in Washington have been open for months, and teachers and staff show up daily without an available vaccine; many Puget Sound-area districts have plans to bring elementary schoolers back to school buildings in the coming weeks.

But many experts say vaccinating teachers and school staff will make returning to school substantially safer. Others go further and say it’s unethical to bring adults back to schools until they’ve had an opportunity to be vaccinated.

“To me, it just feels unjust and immoral that we are putting teachers knowingly into these environments,” said Dr. Vin Gupta, a critical care pulmonologist and an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

A month ago, Gupta said, there was relative consensus in the scientific community that reopening school buildings was unlikely to lead to superspreader events.

“In the last four weeks that has changed with the emergence of this new strain that is more transmissible, across more age groups, not just older adults,” he said, referring to the fast-spreading U.K. variant. As of Wednesday, the variant hadn’t been identified in Washington state, but Gupta cautioned that we should “assume it’s already here.”

“It should force us to reconsider what we’re doing with schools,” he said.

Seattle Times reporter Joy Resmovits contributed reporting.