The COVID-19 vaccination rate among school district employees in Washington state is approaching 90%, and in most large school districts, even outside the western, politically liberal core of the state, the average is higher.
This is nearly 20 percentage points higher than the state’s general population and close to the level of other employees falling under the government official Jay Inslee’s vaccination mandate. Currently, about 70% of Washington residents aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated.
Washington’s mandate to vaccinate school personnel is one of the strictest in the country, and the state superintendent praised the results in a news briefing last week.
But even though they are outpacing vaccination rates in fluctuating counties, new data still show gaps in vaccinated school workers outside of major Washington state communities. Many still have jobs because of religious exclusions.
They were among the first workers to gain access to vaccinations. The decision to vaccinate school personnel was primarily based on concerns that their work might involve working closely with large numbers of people, many of whom were too young to be protected by the vaccine.
Pursuant to this mandate, each of Washington’s 300 school districts acted as independent arbitrators in the review of exemption requests.
Two-thirds of the state’s 300 school districts have provided religious benefits to 10 percent or more of their employees. In percentage terms, the only way the state released this data, he said, was to protect the privacy of employees – the areas with the highest rates of religious denial are quite small.
Onion Creek School District, a rural one-school district in northern Stephens County, granted religious exemptions to nearly 60% of its 17 employees, while only 2% of Seattle’s more than 7,600 public school employees received such exemptions.
Reikdahl said he expected some school districts to be more lenient than others due to hesitation over vaccinations in parts of the state. For example, only 31% of Stevens County residents are vaccinated.
A spokesman for the state Department of Education or the Office of the Superintendent of Public Education (OSPI) said the agency did not plan to intervene unless it suspects the school district may have violated federal or state law in approving exceptions.
Of the approximately 155,000 public school workers, fewer than 500 were found to be non-self-employed, which means they made no effort to get vaccinated or request an exemption by the October 18 deadline. But this number could be underestimated. Because school districts were not required to report their numbers to the state before the deadline, some districts may have admitted people they fired or lost because of the mandate.
As of the end of October, 1,887 state employees were laid off or retired from their positions as of late October, due to the fact that they had to be fully vaccinated by October 18 or lose their jobs, according to the Treasury Department.
Districts with the most vaccinated school workers tend to have the highest percentage of vaccinated residents. The San Juan Island District leads the state in both the proportion of residents and school workers vaccinated, with an average of 94% of school workers vaccinated.
King County was ranked fourth with a 93% average. The Enumclaw School District, with an overall vaccination rate of 78%, was the lowest in the district; this district has granted religious exemption rights to more than a fifth of its employees.
Pend Ouray County, with an average of 59% of school workers vaccinated, came in last. On average, 37% of school workers have no religious exemption.
Seven school districts and one charter school out of 300 states did not provide vaccination data to the state: Damman and Easton School Districts in Kittitas County, Efrata and Moses Lake School Districts in Grant County, Evergreen School District in Stevens. County, Glenwood School District in Clickitate County, South Bend School District in Pacific County, and Innovation Charter School in Walla Walla County.
OSPI also did not ask for vaccination status for contractors who are still mandated but do not officially appear on the school district’s pay lists.
To date, one school system, the Eatonville School District, has received an official warning for non-compliance. If school board leaders do not respond within the OSPI deadline, the agency will cut the district’s funding.