If you seek examples of confusion and conflict related to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, as well as the pandemic’s overall legacy of destruction and despair, look no further than our public schools.
Should more students be making their way back into classrooms despite continued high infection rates in Yakima County and despite the position of “teacher” having very little influence on the vaccine eligibility list?
The short answer is yes, for many compelling reasons. Yet, admittedly, this endorsement is fraught with potential land mines — reasons for caution that are equally compelling.
Yes, kids need to get back to school, because remote learning has failed many of our students despite educators’ best efforts. Yes, because anxiety and depression are rising within an age group that normally needs and craves social interaction among peers.
Yes, because by all indications Yakima Valley schools that have welcomed a limited number of students back to in-person learning have strictly followed health and safety guidelines and are not sites of significant virus transmission.
Yes, because as more students begin their migration back to school, even in limited capacity, their families are more likely to begin their own journeys back to some semblance of normalcy, such as parents returning to the workplace.
Yes, because some of our neediest students have suffered from stay-at-home learning at greater levels, including the homeless, kids in foster care, kids with limited English skills, and kids with physical and/or learning disabilities.
For weeks, Gov. Jay Inslee and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal have been urging schools to reopen for the neediest students as well as younger children, believing it can be safely accomplished. However, in prioritizing these actions, Inslee has decided not to prioritize vaccines for the front-line workers who are the most directly affected by this call to action: Teachers.
“The bottom line is a vaccine is a tremendous safety net but it is never the thing that is going to create the perfect scenario,” Reykdal said recently. “Our schools are safe today.”
Under the current vaccine protocols in Washington, teachers are not eligible for vaccination unless they are 60 or older, or 50 or older and living in a multigenerational household.
Lack of vaccination is an understandable sticking point for teachers. They have done their best with remote learning but are witness to how it negatively affects many students. Of course they understand the many benefits of face-to-face instruction. At the same time, they look to their neighboring teachers in Idaho and Oregon and see that they are eligible for vaccines, as are teachers in 22 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Assuming Inslee doesn’t bend, where do we go?
Back to school — which is what the Yakima School District has planned for thousands of students over the next few weeks, starting this week with about 3,000 kids in small groups who will come back to their campuses for tutoring. Other Valley districts are ramping up in-person and hybrid learning as well — including high schoolers — with the blessing and cooperation of the Yakima Health District.
For high schools, “Advancing to the hybrid learning model is not expected to pose a significantly greater risk to staff and students than their current activities given local data from August 2020 among K-8 students,” the health district said, stressing that strict safety protocols must be followed.
And therein lies the key. This simply won’t work unless all parties are on board with health and safety guidelines, especially because of the potential vulnerability of the front-line teachers who are not yet vaccinated. And those same teachers would be wise to quickly report any breaches of protocol, for their own safety and peace of mind.
As if they already didn’t have enough to worry about.