Like many others, I assumed that as eligibility for the COVID vaccine moves beyond health care workers and elders, school employees who are working at schools offering in-person learning would be prioritized. I was wrong.
The state’s recently unveiled “Get Ready” plan is designed to launch when school employees become eligible under Washington state’s vaccination protocols, and when 50% of those in the Phase 1A Tiers 1 & 2 (health care workers, residents in long-term care facilities) and Phase 1B Tier 1 (people aged 65 and over, those who are 50 and over and living in a confusingly worded “multigenerational household”) are vaccinated.
The Get Ready plan, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), “will focus on supporting a safe return to school for communities across the state.” Kaiser Permanente Washington (Kaiser) is partnering with OSPI to offer vaccination to 80% of the state’s 143,000 school employees within four weeks of the launch. The Get Ready plan includes “approximately 14 to 20 vaccination locations along the I-5 corridor and in Spokane,” Kaiser reports, because “vaccines are a crucial step needed to get our students and school employees back to school safely.”
Ahem. Hello! It’s us over here in central Washington, where school employees took the “crucial step” to getting students back to school last September (Methow Valley), October (Brewster, Cascade/Leavenworth, Eastmont, Manson, Okanogan, Omak, Oroville, Tonasket), November (Wenatchee), and December (Chelan). Without benefit of vaccination, these districts’ school employees bus drivers, teachers, custodians, paraeducators, food service staff, administrators — took those crucial steps into the places that pose the greatest risk for COVID infection: inside, in prolonged contact with people other than members of their own households.
With about 80% of our state’s 295 school districts operating 100% remotely, we in central Washington are so lucky to have so many schools open for on-campus learning. We’re lucky that our kids are getting the benefit of at least a partial in-person education and the benefit of social time with friends, at a time when teen rates of depression and suicide are skyrocketing in areas where schools are fully remote. We’re lucky that working parents can go to work; our local rural economy depends on this. We’re lucky that students who face food insecurity have access to school meals. We’re lucky that students who require extra learning support or special education receive these necessary services. We’re lucky that all these school employees — who transport our kids, feed them, teach them, inspire them, challenge them, and nurture them — continue to play a central role in helping our kids learn to think, listen, interact, and create. We’re lucky that school employees in central Washington are willing to enter those buses and those buildings five days a week.
But OSPI’s vaccination program partnership with Kaiser, which has locations only in Puget Sound and Spokane, so blatantly favors the population-dense areas of the state that its intention to “further efforts to define potential sites more proximate to central Washington” seems as much an insult as an afterthought. It’s time for the state to acknowledge the dedication of school employees in central Washington and allocate vaccines for regional distribution, as our local state Sen. Hawkins advocates, rather than facilitating a statewide effort that accommodates those who have the potential to return to school, instead of those who are already there.
So when Phase 1B Tier 2 rolls around and it’s school employees’ turn to get offered the vaccine according to the Get Ready plan, you’d hope that central Washington school employees who Got Ready last fall and have Remained Ready since then can go to the front of the education sector vaccination line and that they won’t have to travel to the I-5 corridor or Spokane to do so.
If you don’t have a child enrolled in public school, you may be unaware of the extra burden placed on school employees. Windows are open on school buses and in classrooms to promote air flow, even on frigid days. Custodial duties have multiplied exponentially, in a frighteningly chemical manner. Administrators face a host of concerns and decisions all day, every day, regarding student and staff physical and emotional well-being. Cafeteria staff has had to abandon the familiar and efficient family-style food preparation method in favor of individual servings. Teachers prepare for and then facilitate lesson plans two-fold, in order to reach in-person and remote students each day. And just imagine what it’s like for the technology departments in schools, with most students in possession of a school laptop and half of the student body attending school virtually every day.
And yet, these central Washington school employees are doing it, with a generally cheerful attitude. They care about kids, they recognize the vital role that schools play in the function of our society, and they know that without in-person school, the disparities that already create such a disadvantage for rural, low-income, and non-white students could easily turn into an unbridgeable gulf. So they took the crucial step and opened schools.
This, in my mind, makes central Washington school employees heroes. Let’s treat them that way.