Multiple Shelton teachers, educators face termination after COVID-19 vaccine accommodations rejected

SHELTON, Wash. — Multiple teachers and staff working for the Shelton School District tell KIRO 7 they will lose their jobs due to the statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for K-12 employees.

Fifty-four out of 830 employees filed for a medical or religious exemption, according to Kate Diamond, a communications specialist with the Shelton School District. Out of those 54, 16 were granted accommodations.

“We value our employees and are continuing to try and provide more accommodations for staff members who can meet the major responsibilities of their current position, while upholding the heath and safety standards for them and those they work around,” Diamond wrote in an email.

District employees who were not granted an exemption were handed a letter from the district’s Human Resources department. KIRO 7 obtained a copy of the letter, which read in part:

“The District has no received proof of your vaccination or approved exemption/reasonable accommodation and, thus, has tentatively and reluctantly concluded that you must be provided notice of probable cause to terminate your contract pursuant to RCW 28A.405.300. This termination is not in response to any misconduct or poor performance, but solely based on your ineligibility to be a school district employee after October 18. That would be your last day eligible for compensation based on the impossibility of you performing your contract.”

“The District wants to be very sure we have not made any mistakes in this decision before the superintendent issues a notice of probable cause and we end your compensation. For that reason, we are offering you an informal hearing to review any evidence or reasons you may have to refute the tentative conclusion of your ineligibility to be a school district employee after October 18.”

“If the District’s determination about your ineligibility is correct and you do not need this meeting, please send me a resignation letter or resignation email no later than the end of business on Wednesday, October 12, 2021. If I do not hear from you as indicated above, the Superintendent will issue a letter of probable cause for termination of your contract.”

Several teachers and educators tell KIRO 7 they filed exemptions, but were not granted accommodations.

“Us in the Shelton School District felt really blindsided,” Kelsey Muno, a special education teacher at Bordeaux Elementary School, said. “I think we all got our exemptions approved and we were like, ‘phew! Okay, cool.’ Then it was like, boom: no accommodations whatsoever for you in your position.”

Muno said she wasn’t comfortable taking the vaccine at this time and wanted to wait longer before possibly being vaccinated.

Desiree Leth, who teaches family and consumer science at Shelton High School, said she didn’t make the decision until this past weekend after having a conversation with her husband and family.

“This hasn’t been an easy choice,” Leth said. “I’m trying to stand up for what I believe in and I just don’t feel like it’s safe.”

Leth also said she wasn’t comfortable taking the vaccine at this time and wanted to wait longer before possibly being vaccinated.

Leth also expressed worries about a potential vaccine mandate for students, pointing to California’s newly-announced requirement.

“We’re next. As soon as we get all the teachers, bus drivers, school staff on board, the kids are next,” Leth said. “If I go and I just get it, they’re next. Then they just have to get it.”

Aimee Rowland, a paraeduator at Bordeaux Elementary School, also said she wasn’t comfortable taking the vaccine at this time and wanted to wait longer before being vaccinated.

“I’m not anti-vax,” Rowland said. “I get the flu vaccine every year. This one just seems that it’s being pushed too hard and we’re not allowed to make a choice. And that’s not right.”

Rowland, who has also been a Parent, Teacher, Student Organization (PTSO) president, said her recent battle with cancer also made her reluctant to get vaccinated.

“As a breast cancer survivor just as of last year, my body has already been through chemo and through radiation. I’m still taking medication for the next four years,” Rowland said. “I am willing to risk losing my job to stand for what I believe in. That’s going to cost my family alone $1,900 a month in insurance premiums.”

Shelton School District Superintendent Wyeth Jessee wrote a letter to Shelton School District families, staff, and community members.

“Please keep in mind that students have a right to attend public school and it is our obligation to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for them, including over 100 students in the district who are immunocompromised. It is a great privilege to work in our education system to unconditionally serve all students who walk through the doors of our schools,” Jessee wrote. “It is understood that the choice to get vaccinated is personal, and unfortunately, we will lose valued employees because of this mandate… This is not an easy time for anyone and we appreciate our parents, guardians, employees, and community members, for the dedication you have shown to our students as we work together to safely uphold in-person learning.”