By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — South Kitsap School District teachers voted Wednesday against returning to the classroom until educators have received both COVID-19 vaccination shots.
The action has thrown a wrench into SKSD’s plan to return willing students to kindergarten-through-second grade classrooms on Monday. The decision surprised some during a three-hour meeting of the South Kitsap Education Association in which members voted by a margin of nearly 70 percent to not return to the classroom, according to association president John Richardson.
Sixty-eight percent of the 297 association members at Wednesday’s meeting voted against returning to in-person teaching, according to Richardson.
“In this day and age that is a landslide,” Richardson said of the vote.
The association represents 700 teachers who teach students in pre-K through high school, and certified staff. School nurses, counselors and psychologists also are members of the association.
What the vote will do to the plan to reopen in-person teaching next week is not immediately clear. The school district did not immediately respond to a request for a reaction.
“A lot of members are concerned about their safety, the safety of the community, and the safety of the students. That’s what came up over and over again,” Richardson said.
Of particular concern was a recent change in the Washington state health recommendations on when it is safe to reopen classrooms. State guidance on when it is safe for students to engage in in-person learning calls for a ceiling of COVID-positive cases in the county of 75 cases per 100,000.
An updated guidance statement announced last month by Gov. Jay Inslee and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction raised the ceiling to 350 cases per 100,000, according to the school district’s website. Given the county’s COVID case rate, the district stated, the ceiling relaxation allows for local schools to reopen for classroom teaching.
“Teachers were concerned the governor’s decision to change the number to 350 was done without any evidence being given as to why,” Richardson said.
“It’s not just about the number. They (health officials) told us not to be with our families over the holidays, not to go to restaurants, not to do all these things. And suddenly they are telling us it’s okay to be in the classroom with students during the height of the pandemic. It doesn’t make sense.”
On Tuesday the district’s seven registered nurses sent a letter to the school board and superintendent outlining their concerns about students returning to classrooms and their opposition to the district’s return-to-school plan.
“We strive to support our students and staff at this crucial time but feel it would not be safe to do so while infection rates are high,” the district nurses wrote.
Nurse staffing levels are stressed since several nurses have been out while in quarantine and in isolation, according to the letter. “As a result, buildings can go unstaffed by a nurse for up to two weeks.”
The letter raised other health concerns about a return to the classroom settings – it cited local health department statics which shows a significant increase in COVID cases among school-age children and pointed to the new, “more contagious COVID-19 virus strain” that has appeared in parts of Europe and the U.S.
The nurses’ letter continued: “Vaccinations will soon be available to our staff. It is our opinion that waiting until the vaccination is available is a crucial step in ensuring the health and safety of staff and students before returning. This would help alleviate staff fears.”