SPOKANE, Wash. — Protesters took to the streets across the state including in Spokane on Wednesday. This follows Gov. Jay Inslee's announcement that he is expanding the statewide COVID-19 vaccination mandate to all K-12 school employees.
Parents opposed to the vaccine and mask mandates say they just want the freedom to choose whether to wear a mask or get the vaccine. On the other hand, parents who support the governor's announcement say they want the freedom to not get COVID-19 and die.
After the new announcement that all K-12 educators, staff, coaches, bus drivers and school volunteers need to be fully vaccinated, a protest was held by Lewis and Clark High School, where people like Steve Braun voiced their concern with the new mandates.
"If Inslee has this wrong, and I got vaccinated, I'm only hurt for 20 years," Braun said. "But one of my sons could suffer from one of his poor decisions for 70 years."
Braun was one of the 25 ralliers downtown. This was most of the protestors' third event of the day. They started at Central Valley High School.
"I respect if people want to wear one, that's fine, just that there be a choice," mother Christy Deniston said. "It's like my sign says, it's our birthright. It's already ours. I'm not asking for anything, we are just claiming what is already ours."
The protestors then moved to Mead High School and ended up at LCHS.
On the other side of the issue is Casey Balzano. She's a mother, supports the governor's mandates and doesn't understand why some are so opposed to them.
"It just seems so selfish, so self-centered," Balzano said. "And I just have zero tolerance for it."
Graduating with a Bachelors in Science and now working in healthcare, Balzano says her fifteen-year-old son doesn't mind wearing a mask at all. She credits his perception of the mask to her teaching him about the benefits of wearing it when facing COVID-19.
"Honestly, anything to keep them in school, I think that we should promote," she added. "Masks work, being vaccinated works, it's proven to work and this Delta variant is scary. My child understands what's required of him, and it's not that hard to do."
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal also spoke at today's press conference, saying the vaccine and mask requirements are the best way to ensure that schools stay open this fall.
"If we don't get an option of what to put on our faces or what to put in our bodies, then we have lost America forever," mother Shari Bartels said. "Your kids are in Olympia's hands, somebody who has never met your child gets to decide what is best for your child. We need to take back our schools."
The state's vaccine mandate expansion includes public, private and charter schools but does not include any students or tribal schools. Spokane Public Schools had already announced last week that they will be requiring masks for everyone, students included.
"The United States has really screwed this up and it's because of this pushback, it's because people keep on screaming 'freedom,'" Balzano said. "What about the freedom to stay alive? What about the freedom of not dying from a disease? Get it together."
The mandate makes Washington's school vaccine restrictions the strictest in the nation, according to Inslee's office. Only one other state, California, mandated vaccines for teachers, however, teachers may choose to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing instead. Inslee's mandate does not give school employees that option.
"I think that people are giving themselves a lot more credit on thinking they know what they know," she said. "Trust the professionals. No one's trying to murder anyone except COVID. COVID is trying to kill people and it's mutating until it can kill everybody."
Balzano hopes that with this mandate, more lives will be saved. She added that having to wear a mask is nowhere near as bad as dying, spreading the virus to others or even just having virtual learning.
The educators and staff have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated or they will lose their job.
"This order will not delay or impact the full return to in-person learning this fall," SPS spokesperson Sandra Jarrard said in an email to KREM 2. "SPS employees who are not fully vaccinated may continue working as they take steps to verify their religious or medical exemption or get vaccinated prior to the October 18, 2021 deadline provided by the Governor."
The full statement is as follows:
Spokane Public Schools does not anticipate staffing shortages as a result of the vaccine mandate announced today. This order will not delay or impact the full return to in-person learning this fall. SPS employees who are not fully vaccinated may continue working as they take steps to verify their religious or medical exemption or get vaccinated prior to the October 18, 2021 deadline provided by the Governor. This mandate is limited to school and district employees, and does not include SPS students.
Our teachers, support staff and school administrators truly care about the health and wellbeing of their students. They continue to be an invaluable part of our district and provide the best possible education under any circumstance. We are encouraging all employees and contractors to follow public health guidance, and will work with them to ensure compliance with all COVID-safety protocols this school year. SPS is among the 295 public school districts in the state who are working through the details of the Governor’s announcement. We will share more details as they become available.
Inslee also reinstated a mask mandate for indoor public spaces for everyone, regardless of vaccination status. The universal mask mandate will take effect Monday, Aug. 23.
As for the anti-mask protestors, they say today wasn't their last protest. They're planning more downtown this week, they said.