Washington school districts that “willfully” violate state COVID-19 health mandates are at risk of losing state funding, the state’s top school official said Wednesday, but they will be given at least two chances to come into compliance.
Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction, filed an emergency rule outlining the penalties for school districts that fail to comply with Washington’s COVID-19 health measures, including the statewide mask mandate and the vaccine requirement for school employees. His office announced the penalty for districts that don’t follow state rules in July.
School districts that “willfully” don’t follow the health and safety requirements are at risk of having state funding withheld, Reykdal said.
“These safety measures work, and they are not at the discretion of local school boards or superintendents,” Reykdal said in a notice sent Wednesday to school district officials.
Research conducted locally and globally, his statement said, has shown that universal masking and widespread vaccination are the two most effective tools schools can use to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The new emergency rule, which takes effect immediately, is in line with Gov. Jay Inslee’s Aug. 18 announcement that an indoor mask mandate would take effect Aug. 23 statewide and school workers must be vaccinated by Oct. 18.
Washington is one of a few states in the country, along with Oregon and California, requiring masks for everyone in school — even at private schools — regardless of vaccination status. Students and staff are not required to wear masks outdoors.
In July, Reykdal announced that every school district that flouts the mask rule or doesn’t provide a full-time option for in-person learning will face an “immediate halt” to funding.
The new order, however, gives districts, charter schools and other education agencies that receive state funds time to come into compliance if they are found in violation of the rules.
An initial notice will be sent, allowing 15 days for an organization or district to provide verification of compliance. If that deadline is not met, a second notice will be given, with five days to take corrective action.
If compliance is still not met, funding may be withheld.
The time between notices is intended to allow school boards, which typically meet twice a month, to correct their actions, said Katy Payne, spokesperson for Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Schools and districts will be eligible to receive withheld funds once OSPI finds they are in compliance. However, those found to be in noncompliance for two months will receive funds reduced proportionately by the number of days they were found in violation, divided by 180, the number of school days.
The state will be on alert — largely through media reports and complaints filed by the public — for “willful noncompliance,” Payne said.
That includes school boards that knowingly act in violation of health and safety requirements. But it would not be enough to withhold funding, she said, if a single school board member makes comment or a student arrives at school without a mask.
According to Payne, there aren’t any districts in violation right now.
OSPI said it will take public comment in the coming months as the rule is made permanent.