Washington issues vaccine mandate for K-12 school employees and statewide mask mandate

All school employees in Washington state must get a Covid-19 vaccine, or risk losing their job. Also, masks will once again be required in most indoor settings starting Monday, August 23, according to the latest mandates from Gov. Jay Inslee.Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced the mandates Wednesday afternoon.

The vaccine requirements extend to public, private, and charter K-12 schools, as well as higher education institutions. Most childcare and early learning providers who serve multiple families will also be included.

People providing family, friend, and neighborhood care are not included in the mandate. The mandate also does not apply to tribal schools, and does not impact any students.

Teachers, faculty, coaches, bus drivers, volunteers, contractors and other staff associated with schools, colleges, and childcare and early learning programs will have until October 18 to be fully vaccinated.

Like the vaccination mandate for other state workers and health care personnel, announced earlier this month, exemptions for medical religious reasons will be allowed. There will be no option for staff to get regular testing instead of a vaccine.

Individuals who refuse to get vaccinated will be subject to dismissal, according to the Governor’s office.

The new mandate comes amid a rising Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations, mostly among the unvaccinated, that are straining the state’s healthcare system. It also comes as families and districts across the state prepare for a return to school.

Republicans were quick to denounce Inslee and characterized the mandates as “dictating”. Senate Republican Leader John Braun said he is vaccinated and urges others to do so but has strong concerns about Inslee’s tactics.

“No other governor has gone so far to take deeply personal health-care choices away from people and force them to inject something into their bodies. Today, Governor Inslee also sent a clear message that he doesn’t trust the dedicated teachers and staff at our public K-12 schools to make their own decisions about how to protect students and one another,” Braun said in a written statement.

The Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has previously said they’d support a vaccine mandate if it was deemed necessary.

In a statement last week the association said: “All along we have said that we will follow the guidance of public health experts. If it is the opinion of public health experts that a vaccine mandate is the next best step to take to control this pandemic, WEA will support that position.”

Not all organizations have responded favorably to the mandates. The Seattle Police Officers Guild has pushed back against Seattle’s version of a vaccine mandate for public employees.

Mask mandate returns

Inslee’s announcement Wednesday didn’t stop with vaccines. Washington is also returning to a statewide mask mandate.

Starting Monday, everyone, vaccinated or not, must wear a mask in indoor settings, with a few exceptions.

Masks are not required in offices that aren’t easily accessible to the public and where people are vaccinated.

People working alone indoors or in a vehicle with no public face-to-face interaction are also exempt. And if you’re having a small, private indoor gathering where everyone is vaccinated you can go unmasked.

Elsewhere, officials say face coverings must go on.

Health officials are also strongly recommending, though not requiring, that people wear masks in crowded outdoor settings like concerts or farmers markets.

The delta variant is proving to be much more contagious than previously in the pandemic. For example, one Covid outbreak has emerged from Watershed, an outdoor country music festival at the Gorge Amphitheater held on Aug. 1. More than 200 people have reported coming down with a case of Covid after attending the concert.

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