Data submitted to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) shows nearly 10 percent of public school employees received a religious Covid-19 vaccine exemption while less than 1 percent were granted a medical exemption. The data was collected October 19-25, after governor Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate went into effect on October 18.
According to the OSPI data, 89.1 percent of Washington’s K-12 workforce is fully vaccinated. Of the remaining 10.9 percent, 9.7 received a religious exemption and 0.7 received a medical exemption. Half of one percent of school employees had initiated vaccination but were not yet fully vaccinated, and 0.3 percent were unvaccinated and hadn’t received an exemption.
The Blaine school district and Whatcom County as a whole came in slightly ahead of the state numbers, both with 90 percent of employees fully vaccinated, according to the data.
In Whatcom County, that put Blaine with a higher vaccination rate than most districts. Only the Bellingham school district had a higher vaccination rate, with 96 percent fully vaccinated. Both Blaine and Meridian school districts staff were 90 percent vaccinated. Lynden had the lowest vaccination rate, with 81 percent of staff fully vaccinated.
The Lynden school district also had the highest percentage of staff receive religious exemptions in the county, with 18 percent given exemptions. Eight percent of Blaine school district’s staff obtained a religious exemption, which was the second lowest in the county behind Bellingham with 3 percent. Nooksack Valley had 15 percent, Mount Baker 12, Ferndale 11 and Meridian 9.
Medical exemptions in the county ranged from 2 percent to less than 1 percent.
Looking at the numbers statewide, Whatcom County’s range of data represents the better part of Washington as a whole. Most school districts range from 1-2 percent of staff getting religious exemptions to 20 percent, while most schools throughout the state only had a few staff members obtain medical exemptions. But there are outliers.
Of the 315 public school districts in Washington, eight had over 40 percent of employees obtain a religious exemption, all of which reported that zero percent of staff members were unvaccinated and without an exemption. All Whatcom County school districts reported that less than 1 percent of staff members were unvaccinated and did not obtain an exemption, except for Mount Baker, which reported 3 percent in that category.
There were also at least 20 school districts in the state with 20-40 percent of staff receiving religious exemptions.
The Onion Creek school district in Colville had the highest percent of employees receive a religious exemption, with 59 percent. According to the district website, Onion Creek has 16 employees. Mansfield school district had 57 percent of staff receive medical exemptions, and according to its staff directory, the district has 27 people on staff.
According to OSPI, Mansfield’s reported data was inconsistent with OSPI’s personnel records – number of employees on staff. Two other school districts also had inconsistent data: Okanogan and Grand Coulee Dam. The South Bend school district did not comply with OSPI’s reporting requirement.
Of those eight districts above with over 40 percent of staff obtaining a religious exemption, Starbuck had the lowest with 43 percent, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the district had seven people on staff.
The Northern Light reached out to the county’s public school districts to see how they evaluated employees’ exemption applications. The Northern Light heard from all but Nooksack Valley.
Most said they utilized OSPI’s guidance for reviewing medical and religious exemptions and reviewed staff members’ applications on a case-by-case basis, which was allowed under the guidance. Those who were granted exemptions were given an accommodation plan to mitigate possible spreading of Covid-19.
“Employees on an accommodation from the vaccination mandate have an added layer of mitigation of weekly COVID testing, PPE and distancing,” Blaine school district superintendent Christopher Granger wrote in an email.
Lynden school district interim superintendent Mike Stromme said in an email the district did not have a specific policy and reviewed all accommodation requests on an individual basis. Ferndale school district executive director of human resources John Fairbairn replied similarly and said that unvaccinated employees must undergo two rapid tests per week, wear a three-layer mask and leave their mask on while in a shared space.
Mount Baker superintendent Mary Sewright said accommodations at the district were approved conditionally and that all approved would test twice a week, adding they would also continue to wear a mask when those vaccinated are allowed to remove theirs – if state guidance ever said it was safe to do so.
Meridian superintendent James Everett said the district did not give blanket accommodations to exempted staff, but rather assigned them based on the individual’s duties and risk of spreading the virus. “[We] looked at what their roles were with the district and what would be the best fit,” he said.
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