‘Safety is the most important thing’: Local teachers union presidents react to state’s new COVID-19 mandates

Washington teachers, along with other K-12 school staff and volunteers, will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 to keep their jobs

Presidents of the local Camas and Washougal teachers union recently weighed in on a new state mandate requiring all K-12 school teachers, staff, coaches, bus drivers and volunteers be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs. 

Shelley Houle, president of the Camas Educational Association, a union representing more than 460 educators, school counselors and teacher-librarians in the Camas School District, said she believes about 70 percent of Camas K-12 teachers have already been vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but is urging the remainder of her union’s members to talk to their medical physician if they have concerns about the vaccine. 

“Staff and students safety is the most important thing to me and the board,” Houle said. “We encourage (educators), if they’re able, to get the vaccination and, if they have concerns, to talk to their doctor.”
While the union is not taking “sides” on the state mandate, Houle said she personally thinks the vaccines, which are available for free to every Washingtonian 12 years old and older, are “the most effective way to stop the spread of COVID.” 

Houle has only heard from a few members since Gov. Jay Inslee announced the vaccine requirement on Aug. 18. 

“Some are reluctant (to get vaccinated), but I’ve also heard from those who hope everybody is vaccinated,” Houle said. 

There seem to be more educators in the Washougal School District with concerns about the new vaccine requirement. 

James Bennett, the president of the Washougal Association of Eductors, a union representing about 200 teachers in the Washougal district, said the announcement was “a bit stressful” despite the fact that the majority of Washougal educators — Bennett estimates about 60 to 70 percent — are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

“The majority of our members are vaccinated, but there are people who can’t get vaccinated or who have some objection to getting the vaccine,” Bennett said. “It’s pretty stressful to find out a week before school starts that you could lose your job.”
Bennett said the union is working with the district to “see what the exemption process looks like” and to figure out the timeline for teachers and other school district staff who must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. 

On Monday, Aug. 23, Doug Hood, interim superintendent of the Camas School District, said the requirement would mean unvaccinated individuals would need to have their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, which requires two doses, 21 days apart, by Sept. 13; of the Moderna vaccine, which requires two doses, 28 days apart, by Sept. 6, and of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Oct. 4 to be considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18. 

“We’ve had calls from people on all sides,” Bennett said. “The most common is from people who were uncomfortable getting the vaccine, but will now do it. They feel stuck.” 

The one thing nearly all Washougal educators can agree on is the fact that they support returning to a five-day school week after more than a year of remote and hybrid learning, Bennett said. 

“I think, by and large, everybody is excited about returning to five days a week,” Bennett said. “The more back to normal we can get, the better.”  

Previous to mandating COVID-19 vaccines for all public and private K-12 school staff and volunteers — as well as educators and staff at the state’s colleges, universities and early learning childcare centers — Inslee had announced that K-12 schools would return to a five-day-a-week schedule but would continue to require staff, visitors and students to wear face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the 2021-22 school year. 

Houle and Bennett agreed the continuation of the mask mandate is not a big issue for most of their union members — or for most students. 

“I think everybody is used to it at this point,” Bennett said of the mandate to wear masks during school. “I don’t really like the masks, mostly because they fog up my glasses, but it is what it is … and, on average, the students have been very good about wearing their masks.”
Houle agreed: “The kids are really good at doing that,” she said of wearing masks during class and even during recess time. “They can have mask fatigue, but the teachers have been good about taking them outside for a snack and a mask break, while staying six feet apart.”
Houle said Camas educators also are excited to return to a five-day-a-week school year, and are confident the mask mandate will help keep staff and students safe. 

“The delta variant is hitting kids, and we want our kids to be safe,” Houle said. “We know (wearing face coverings) works. We had exposures last year and nobody else in the room got it.”
Though a small group of vocal parents have shown up to Camas School Board meetings throughout the summer to express their anger over the mask mandates — and have urged school board members to buck the state mandate and allow children to attend school without face coverings — Houle said she has heard of very few instances of students refusing to wear masks at school.  

“They might say what their parents are saying, but they typically don’t go against (the mask requirement),” Houle said, adding the union is working on an updated memorandum of understanding with the district that will have a section regarding the exclusion of students are are willfully refusing to follow the mask mandate.

Anti-mask sentiment persists at local school board meetings

Despite statements from the Centers for Disease Control that masks are”an effective way to lessen the transmission of the coronavirus,” and ample research showing that wearing face coverings, especially high-efficiency face coverings such as N95 and KN95 masks, and implementing other preventative measures such as social distancing and adequate ventilation, will prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, a small but vocal group of Camas-Washougal community members have shown up to local school board meetings throughout the summer to voice their opposition students being required to wear face coverings during school. 

At the Camas School Board’s meeting on Monday, Aug. 23, a 20-year Camas resident and a Washougal pediatric health care provider both spoke out against the district’s state-mandated mask policy for students. 

“I believe putting masks on schoolchildren is unconscionable,” said longtime Camas resident Liz Rondeau. “We have this fantasy that wearing a mask is making any difference at all.”

Rondeau, who came to a July 26 Camas School Board meeting with a “Take Masks Off!” sign and urged the board to go against the state’s mask mandate for students, contended on Monday evening that the state’s mask mandate is a violation of her First Amendment rights, which establishes a free press and also gives Americans the right to be free from the government establishing or interfering with a religion; the right to not have the government censor their speech; the right to assemble peacefully; and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. 

“There is only so much Americans can tolerate when there is so much tyranny of our rights,” Rondeau told the Camas School Board on Monday. “No mandate from the governor supersedes our rights.”

Washougal Physician Assistant Scott Miller, of Miller Family Pediatrics, also showed up at the Monday night Camas School Board meeting to speak against the mask mandate. Turning his back on the school board and removing his mask from his mouth and nose, Miller said “we know (masks) are useless.” 

When school board president Tracey Malone asked Miller to please face the board and put his mask on correctly, the pediatric health care practitioner turned to face the board and pushed his mask over his nose again for a short time, then accused the school board members of having a “corrupt” agenda and “a complete and utter lack of regard for parents” before turning to the crowd again to tell them they “are being lied to on every level.” 

Camas School District’s interim superintendent, Doug Hood, said Monday that the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Chris Reykdal had made it “very clear that any (school) board that decided to go in a different direction than the governor would lose funding.”
“It is not an option to go in a different direction when it comes to our mitigation strategies,” Hood said Monday. “Face masks are a state, not a local, requirement.” 

Although the mask opponents tend to show up in-person to the school board meetings, the board has also had support in-person and in written form from several parents and students throughout the summer months. 

At the board’s first meeting in August, 14-year-old Camas student Elspeth Ediliah Feb wrote to the school board members to tell them she believed they were “all doing great” and to support the board’s COVID-19 prevention measures.

“I am a 14-year-old girl who has lived in Camas for 12 years now,” Feb wrote. “I used to be proud of my country, of my hometown; used to call this place my hometown. Now I’m just … completely and utterly embarrassed. Things are so backwards in this nation, and it’s excruciating to watch. Masks need to happen. My whole family got COVID a year ago, and now we all have Long Covid. It has been hell. Please, don’t let up on masks. They are a vital part of our survival. Anyone who doesn’t believe it is crazy. Delta is real. Covid is real. And the people dying every day are real.”

“Please continue in your efforts to promote masks as well racial justice and education,” Feb wrote to the school board. “I know that your job is frustrating, but thank you for working so hard.”

Inslee: ‘We can’t afford to gamble with the health of educators, students’

Inslee announced the vaccine requirement for school staff on Aug. 18, during a press conference with Washington’s superintendent of public education, Chris Reykdal, and the state’s secretary of health, Dr. Umair Shah. 

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations “exploding across our state,” Inslee said he had to act to save lives and protect the health care system from being overwhelmed by COVID patients.
“We can go back to the painful days of closing our businesses, closing our schools, or we can use the known, effective and safe tools at our disposal,” Inslee said. “We are fortunate, blessed,  to have two tools — masks and vaccines — that are safe … and we should use them.” 

Washington is one of the most protective states when it comes to keeping students and staff safe inside classrooms, Inslee added, and “cannot afford to continue to gamble with the health of educators, students, parents and the communities (educators) serve.” 

The governor said the new vaccine requirement will impact nearly 155,000 educators, school leaders and staff in Washington’s K-12 schools, as well as about 118,000 early education workers and 90,000 staff, faculty and graduate students in Washington’s college and universities. 

“These vaccines are incredibly, amazingly effective,” Inslee said on Aug. 18. “They are a miracle. A double miracle because they save lives by the tens of thousands with minimal side effects.”
Inslee added that “169 million Americans (who have been vaccinated against COVID-19) already know this is true,” and that “unvaccinated people are at risk in the state of Washington.”
“It’s heartrending to be losing our coworkers, our neighbors, our students to a preventable disease,” Inslee said, adding that over 95 percent of COVID-19 patients in Washington hospitals today are not vaccinated against the disease. 

Adding that the delta variant is a “new challenge to the state of Washington” in the fight against COVID-19, the governor said he, along with the state’s public health officials, felt it necessary to mandate vaccines at this point in the pandemic. 

“We are convinced we are at the point that, without these vaccine requirements, we will continue to be susceptible to new variants,” Inslee said. “We will do our level best to share accurate medical information with Washingtonians. The more people who don’t fall prey to misinformation on the internet, the more lives will be saved.”
Inslee urged Washington residents who are vaccine hesitant to consult with their medical practitioners. 

“Please ask people who really know,” Inslee said. “The delta variant is a whole new challenge to the state of Washington … and there are new victims. When we started, we thought of those in nursing homes and of a certain age (of being more impacted by COVID-19), but the virus is increasingly impacting young people. It is primarily now in people who are not vaccinated.” 

On Monday, Aug. 23, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19 in individuals 16 years and older. The FDA also continued its emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for people age 12 to 15 and as a third dose “booster” shot for immunocompromised people. 

“The FDA’s approval of this vaccine is a milestone as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. While this and other vaccines have met the FDA’s rigorous, scientific standards for emergency use authorization, as the first FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, the FDA’s acting commissioner, stated in a news release on Monday. “While millions of people have already safely received COVID-19 vaccines, we recognize that for some, the FDA approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated. Today’s milestone puts us one step closer to altering the course of this pandemic in the U.S.”
After the state broke its COVID-19 hospitalization record last week, Inslee said state leaders knew they had to act fast. 

“This virus mutated, and there is a new game in town. Our hospitals are swamped. Our health care workers are exhausted. Our communities are stressed. And we have not seen a trend that shows it’s going to slow down without new action,” Inslee said. “We know the vaccines work. We know masks work. And, together, these tools will help us forge a new path in our state.” 

Reykdal and Shah agreed.

“We know we can open our schools, and keep them open, and keep students and staff safe,” Reykdal said on Aug. 18. “We had a successful opening of schools this spring and kept our COVID case loads down. But delta is different. It is more transmissible as we now know … and our face coverings — which were already a requirement in all of our schools — and this new requirement to get folks in contact with students vaccinated is, in fact, our best way to keep schools open.” 

Shah said the state is “in a serious situation right now” when it comes to COVID-19 and the highly transmissible delta variant. “We have had a serious rise in cases and hospitalizations, the vast majority due to the delta variant, across the state.” 

The increase in illnesses is stressing Washington’s health care system, Shah said. 

“We are seeing staff shortages. We are seeing (hospitals) discharge patients early and divert patients from care they need because they’re too full to accept new (patients).’

Delta is a game-changer,” Shah added. “We were hoping the vaccine would be enough.”
But even though there are 4.1 million Washingtonians now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Shah said the roughly two million eligible Washington residents who have not yet been vaccinated against the deadly coronavirus means are “helping drive up our surge” of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state. 

“So, here we are, wishing we did not have to act as we are today,” Shah said, referring to the new vaccine requirements, as well as a new state order that requires all residents — vaccinated or not — to wear face coverings in public indoor spaces. “Vaccination (rates) are increasing, but it will take weeks to see an impact. People are getting sick today from the delta variant, which means we have no choice but to act. Masks and vaccines together, we know, work better. We urge you to get vaccinated and to talk to your health care provider (about COVID-19 vaccines).”
“We should not fear COVID-19 or the delta variant,” Shah added. “Instead, we should respect COVID-19. It does not care who you are. If you let your guard down, it will rear its ugly head.”