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Inslee lauds Pierce County school's COVID-19 safety measures

Washington state is working on bringing more students back into the classroom for in-person learning.

BUCKLEY, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee toured Elk Ridge Elementary in Pierce County with a simple goal. 

”We hope that people listen to what other districts are doing,” said Inslee, D-Washington. 

Inslee's tour comes as a growing number of districts are bringing students back for in-person education. But teachers in some districts are pushing back against the start dates until all of them can get vaccinated.

“Before more educators are ordered back to in-person services, every employee must be given access to vaccine shot #1 and shot #2 before resuming in-person services and instruction,” said the Washington Education Association in a written statement.

RELATED: Washington teachers push for higher vaccine priority as districts plan return to classrooms

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the latest figures suggest 22% of the state's students are receiving some in-person instruction.

Inslee said that examples like Elk Ridge show other districts how schools can reopen safely.

“For the last several months, over 200,000 students have been in similar school operations, most in hybrid situations,” Inslee said. “And they have proven categorically that this can be done safely.”

Inslee's tour included fourth grade and special education classes at Elk Ridge, which is part of the White River School District.

The district brought elementary students back on-campus in December. Middle and high schoolers returned in January. 

The grades are split into morning and afternoon classes, to limit how many students are on campus at the same time. All staff and students, except special education students, are required to wear masks while on-campus and student desks are separated by six feet. 

White River high school math teacher Dameon Marlow said he had concerns, but felt like limiting the number of students on campus at one time is effective. 

“You just feel safe,” Marlow told the governor. 

There have been cases of COVID-19 among students and staff, but educators there said on Tuesday the benefits outweigh the risks.

School counselor Greg Benjamin said he is convinced the students are getting a better experience in the classroom. 

”One of our teachers asked her classroom, ‘Tell me what you’re most proud of the first semester,’” said Benjamin. “Then a student put in, ‘That I didn’t kill myself.’” 

While Inslee does not have the authority to reopen schools, he could move teachers up the priority list. In about two dozen other states, including Oregon, teachers are eligible for vaccines.

But right now in Washington state, only those 65 years and over, or those over 50 who live in multi-generational homes are eligible for the vaccine in Washington.

“We know that 89% of the fatalities occur to people over the age of 60. So obviously, it's just common sense that we first vaccinate the people who are in the danger zone,” Inslee said. 

Inslee said teachers, grocery workers, and child care employees might get earlier access to vaccines after half the current list of those eligible are vaccinated. 

The tour comes as there's a push from local and federal leaders to reopen classrooms. 

In Tacoma, kindergarten students returned to class Jan. 19 with increased precautions to protect against the coronavirus. It was part of the district’s plan to gradually bring more students back into the school building. 

The district has announced kindergarteners would only be in the classroom two days a week, but that could be bumped up to four days a week by early February if the COVID-19 numbers stay down. 

A plan is currently underway to vaccinate teachers and staff throughout the state. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and Kaiser Permanente Washington are partnering to get vaccines to educators.

The plan will include 14-20 vaccination sites along the I-5 corridor and Spokane area. These will be capable of offering vaccination to as many as 80% of school employees, according to information released Friday.