The floodgates have opened for school staff across the state to be vaccinated for COVID-19, a big step forward for Yakima County educators who are already back in the classroom, officials say.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee moved all teachers, school staff and child care providers to the state’s Phase 1B-1 of COVID-19 vaccine prioritization immediately. The change came in response to a call by President Joe Biden for states to provide these individuals with at least one vaccine dose by the end of the month, and is seen as an opportunity for more schools statewide to return to in-person learning.

In a Tuesday announcement, state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal said about 36% of Washington students are receiving some or all of their learning in-person.

“We expect this priority on vaccinations for school employees will speed up the timeline for many districts who are working to begin or expand in-person learning,” he said in the statement.

All private and public school districts in Yakima County have reintroduced at least some grades of students to hybrid learning. Others have had students back on campus for months. More students are scheduled to be back in person in the coming weeks.

While the change might move other schools throughout the state to switch to in-person learning, in the Yakima Valley, it’s creating a layer of safety for teachers and staff already back on campus, and putting them more at ease.

The Yakima situation

Yakima County schools were among the first in the state to reopen after the March 2020 mandate for all schools statewide to close as COVID-19 outbreaks cropped up. Some returned to campus at the start of the school year, while others have gradually reintroduced students over time.

As they have reopened, schools are required to follow strict safety guidelines, from masking and social distancing to temperature checks. While outbreaks in schools have been minimal, school staff say that vaccines are a big factor in feeling safe returning to campus.

Before Tuesday’s announcement, they only qualified for vaccines if they were over 65 in age, or were 50 and older and living in a multi-generational household.

The area has been moving closer to the next phase of vaccine eligibility as more doses have arrived in Yakima County, and was maybe two weeks away from vaccinating school staff, said Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, which supports schools in the region. Schools have been getting ready to coordinate vaccine distribution, and some have already done so for older staff. Tuesday’s announcement has simply sped things up, he said.

Jodie Camarata, a business teacher at Zillah High School who returned to teaching students in person last month after nearly a year of remote teaching, said she felt safe returning to school because of the various safety measures being implemented at the school. But more so, she felt comfortable because as a member of a multigenerational household, she received her first vaccination against COVID-19 last week.

All school staff in the state can now access vaccines regardless of age or household, as long as supply allows.

The Yakima Health District has been working with the county’s Office of Emergency Management to coordinate possible site clinics for school staff if the county has adequate vaccines, said Nathan Johnson, the health district’s emergency response coordinator. He said these efforts have been ongoing.

School staff can receive vaccine doses from any vaccine distributor, regardless of orchestrated sites, he added.

Johnson said it was unclear what portion of school staff were yet to be vaccinated, and that the greatest limitation in doing so was the supply of vaccines to the county.

“We don’t know what future weeks will look like as far as how many (doses) we will get so it’s hard to put a timeline on it,” he said about getting the first shot to school staff by the end of March. “I will say it is encouraging that we are getting increasing amounts and our providers are doing an amazing job getting the vaccine out to patients who need it. ... This is exciting news to make our schools safer, and we will continue to work with providers and schools to connect them to the right resources.”

In a Tuesday statement, the state Department of Health said planning was underway to iron out supply.

“DOH is working quickly to get clarity from the Biden Administration to ensure roll-out in our state will result in ample vaccine supply through various providers and equitable access for education and childcare workers,” it said. “Vaccine supply will likely primarily be delivered through the federal pharmacy program, and the directive indicates all vaccine providers should prioritize these workers.”

The department’s statement added that older adults and others who were previously eligible but not yet vaccinated will continue to be prioritized.

Next steps

For the ESD and area districts, the next step is to make a list of employees who have expressed interest, and then coordinate with a local provider, Chase said. The ESD will welcome pharmacy staff to its headquarters next week to vaccinate its interested staff, for example.

There’s no singular resource or system for schools, so each district has to make its own plans of how to connect staff with vaccines, said Sunnyside School District Superintendent Kevin McKay.

Among Sunnyside schools’ roughly 900 staff, 100 have been vaccinated through the school prior to the change in eligibility, said McKay. The district partnered with Astria Sunnyside hospital and offered vaccines in an unused former gymnasium in the district.

He said the district expects to continue this partnership with Astria if vaccine supply allows, and may invite surrounding schools to use the facility and resources to vaccinate their staff. In the meantime, the Sunnyside district is reaching out to other local health care providers about additional partnerships and supply, he said.

The Yakima School District has been partnering with Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic to offer vaccination opportunities, said Stacey Locke, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations. The district is contacting staff who previously expressed interest in vaccines but were not previously eligible to get permission to connect them with the clinic, she said.

The local take

About 300 of the district’s 960 Yakima Education Association members are over the age of 60, making them part of the “high-risk” category for COVID-19, said John Cavanaugh, the union’s president. But not all members previously qualified for vaccines. It was a concern, as full grades of students began returning to in-person learning on Monday.

“The biggest concern for my members was going back before they were vaccinated. With this now, it’ll ease all of this,” Cavanaugh said. “They’re excited to go back for the students and it’s going to be good for them, too. Everybody knew we needed to be back in the classroom but we were just trying to do it safely … It’s huge.”

School officials called the prioritization of school staff a turning point.

“This was one of the big building blocks in getting the economy where it needs to be,” Chase said. “Kids having a safe place to be so (parents) can get back to work.”

The next step is getting more kids into the classroom, Chase said.

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka