Washington is now rolling out what may be the strictest school vaccine mandate in the United States. The new measure requires all teachers and school staff to be fully vaccinated against the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) by Oct. 18 as a condition for employment.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee announced the measure during a press briefing on Wednesday, Aug. 18. As part of it, he cited health concerns over variants of the COVID-19 virus.

“I’m convinced we are at this point in this pandemic that without these vaccine requirements we will continue to be susceptible to new variants,” Inslee said when he announced the mandate, claiming that 95 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the state were unvaccinated.

All school employees must comply or lose their jobs

Washington’s mandate is wide-ranging. It applies not just to teachers but to anyone working in a school environment. This includes bus drivers, coaches and volunteers. Employees who don’t comply could be subject to dismissal.

Inslee explained that the order would likely affect about 118,000 workers in early-learning and child care programs, as well as around 90,000 employees in higher education institutions.

Students and tribal schools are exempt from the vaccine mandate. 

Unlike similar mandates rolled out in other states, Washington does not allow for regular testing as an option for those who do not want to be vaccinated. The only way to opt-out is with a religious or medical exemption. Inslee stated that “personal or philosophical exemptions” will not be accepted.

In announcing the mandate, Inslee emphasized the fact that children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. As such, he stated that school employees getting vaccinated were a way to protect these children.

“When you decide to get a vaccine, you’re protecting a kid out there who can’t get it,” Inslee said. “This virus is increasingly impacting young people, and those under the age of 12 still can’t get the vaccine for themselves.”

“We won’t gamble with the health of our children, our educators, and school staff, nor the health of the communities they serve,” he added.

New mandate follows one for government and health care workers

Inslee’s vaccine mandate for school employees comes just over a week after he announced a similar vaccine mandate for government and health care workers.

Announced on Aug. 9, the new mandate requires most government and health care workers, private health care workers and long-term care workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 18 – the same deadline as school employees – or lose their jobs.

The mandate also covers executive cabinet agencies, which are supported by around 60,000 employees across 24 state agencies. Any contractors wanting to do business with the state will also have to be vaccinated.

“These workers live in every community in our state, working together and with the public every day to deliver services,” Inslee said. “We have a duty to protect them from the virus, they have the right to be protected, and the communities they serve and live in deserve protection as well.”

The mandate was met with resistance from health care workers. Hundreds of protesters gathered in the state capital of Olympia, WA on Friday, Aug. 13, to protest the mandate.

Opinions about the vaccines varied among the protesters. But all agreed that a mandate requiring them was a step too far.

“It is really about the mandate,” state employee Tarah Kimbrough said. “I do not feel that it is appropriate for the government, or governor is telling me that it is safe to get a vaccine when they have no idea what is happening with my body.”

The protesters argued that the vaccine mandate was an abuse of Inslee’s authority under the state’s state of emergency. However, a spokesman for Inslee’s office told that the mandates were well within the governor’s authority.

“We are confident that the governor has the legal authority to do this and that courts will agree,” the spokesperson said to local NBC affiliate King 5

Another concern raised by those against the mandate is that hospitals and long-term care facilities would lose employees at a time when they’re already understaffed.

“We’re going lose a ton of healthcare professionals,” said Kimberly Johnson, a registered nurse and healthcare worker. “They were tired before, they were absolutely exhausted before all this hit, then COVID hit. They’re done. They’re walking away from the field, they’re done. They’re tired of all of this.”

Now, with another mandate looming, the question is raised on whether the same issues will affect schools when they reopen in Washington.

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