Will teachers in one state risk losing their jobs if they skip the vaccine?

In Oklahoma City Schools, COVID cases exploded from the single to the triple digits after just three days of school.

The disruptions of a third COVID year intensified as Washington teachers faced a high-stakes vaccine mandate, schools shut down and court battles over mask mandates loomed.

All school staff should be required to get vaccinated or face “non-disciplinary dismissal from employment,” Chris Reykdal, Washington state’s superintendent of public instruction, wrote in a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee.

On Aug. 9, Inslee made getting a COVID vaccination a condition of employment for state employees and licensed healthcare providers. Inslee should institute the vaccine mandate as soon as possible so districts can make staffing decisions and finalize agreements with labor unions.

“With the continued increase in cases of COVID-19 across our state due to the highly contagious delta variant, students losing precious time learning in-person with their educators and peers because of quarantine or, potentially, school building closures is a real threat,” Reykdal wrote.

In Oklahoma City Public Schools, COVID cases exploded when students returned to school. On Friday, Superintendent Sean McDaniel issued a mask mandate for his district despite a state law barring such requirements.

“The numbers we are seeing in our city and in our school buildings reinforce that this threat is not hypothetical,” McDaniel said in a message to the district. “In just our first three days of classes, OKCPS has moved from single-digit active COVID-19 cases to triple-digit numbers.”

And in Arkansas, 50 students tested positive and 355 were quarantined in Marion Public Schools. A total of 116 students have tested positive and 1,448 have been quarantined since school started on July 26, according to the district’s website.

The district’s school board waited until Aug. 10 to mandate masks for everyone in all of its schools.

More states issue mandates

Virginia became the latest state to issue a universal mask mandate in its schools. Many districts had already required everyone to wear masks regardless of vaccination status, and officials said face coverings would keep schools open and students safe.

As of Aug. 10, 40% of 12-15 year-olds and 52% of 16-17-year-olds in Virginia were fully vaccinated, officials said in a statement.

“We know that masking is an effective tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly among children who are not yet eligible for vaccination,” Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver said. “As cases rise in our communities, universal masking and other mitigation measures will ensure our schools continue to be the safest place for Virginia’s children.”

More from DA: Schools in at least 5 states have shut down as delta infects more students

Earlier in the week, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill providing $500 million to improve ventilation and air quality in public schools.

And New York’s incoming governor, Kathy Hochul, said she expects to issue a statewide school mask mandate once she has the authority, The Buffalo News reported.

Districts grapple with COVID outbreaks

Elsewhere, the scope of COVID outbreaks in schools across the country became more apparent. There were 51 confirmed COVID cases among students and staff during the first few days of school in Palm Beach County, Florida, and about 440 students had been quarantined, Superintendent Michael Burke told MSNBC, according to WPTV.com.

“You’re talking about a little over two cases per school on average,” Burke said. “That’s a concern. I would say it’s a potential growing concern, and we’re monitoring it very closely.”

The School District of Palm Beach County also reported that one in 25 students, or about 6,400 kids, had opted out of the district’s mask mandate, The Palm Beach Post reported.

The figures show parents in the Jupiter area, a relatively affluent, conservative-leaning region, were most likely to opt out of the mask mandate. But opt-out numbers were far lower in lower-income, high-minority neighborhoods, according to The Palm Beach Post. 

In Mississippi, the Pearl River County School District, another COVID hotspot, has shut down and shifted all five of its schools to online learning until at least Aug. 27. All students and staff will be required to wear masks when in-person learning resumes, the district said on its website.

The district quarantined 40% of its students one week after classes began, with no mask requirements, on Aug. 5, the Mississippi Free Press reported.

Legal battles looming

A group of Oklahoma medical professionals and parents have sued the state legislature and Gov. Kevin Stitt over the mask mandate ban, The Oklahoman reported.

“As we are experiencing record numbers of children infected by the Delta variant and hospitals are stretched to capacity, we must do everything we can to keep Oklahoma’s children safe,” Oklahoma State Medical Association President Dr. Mary Clarke said, according to The Oklahoman. “This is not a political stance; it is about public health and common sense. If schools can send students home for a lice infection, they should have the latitude and ability to issue a mask mandate.”

Elsewhere, several more districts, in all areas of the country, mandated masks for all students and staff, including Pine Bluff School District in Arkansas, Harford County Public Schools in Maryland, and Escambia County Public Schools.

In Utah, however, the Salt Lake County Council on Thursday overturned a health department order that would have mandated masks for K-6 students, the Deseret News reported.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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