Washington students, particularly those not yet in high school, could soon be returning to the classroom.
At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced new guidelines for bringing students back. While the decisions will be left to local school officials, the guidelines represent a major change in the state’s approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As governor, I have the authority to close schools for emergencies, but I do not have the authority to reopen them,” he said.
Reaction in Spokane ran the gamut – from caution in Spokane Public Schools, to vindication at the Mead School District, where in-person learning has been the norm since September, to frustration from one parent group that Inslee’s message wasn’t conveyed sooner.
Schools will be required to follow mandatory safety measures established by the state Department of Health. They include screening students and staff for symptoms; maintaining distances of 6 feet, and keeping students in smaller groups or “cohorts” of about 15 if the room doesn’t accommodate that spacing; wearing face coverings; increased hygiene protocols like handwashing, sanitizing and adequate ventilation.
Once those are in place, the recommendations say in-person learning can be made available to all students when the local two-week COVID case rate is less than 50 cases per 100,000 people in the community.
If cases are greater than 50 but less than 350 per 100,000 people, schools should consider phasing in a return to the classroom, starting with elementary and middle school students.
At above 350 cases per 100,000 people, the recommendations call for phasing in classroom learning, starting with pre-kindergarten through grade 3, possibly by dividing large classes into cohorts that might go to school Monday and Tuesday and others that attend Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday used as a day for sanitizing.
Spokane County’s two-week COVID case rate as of Wednesday was 835 per 100,000. But even at that level of infection in the community, Inslee said schools around the state that are already open should remain so if they are having success at controlling the virus.
And closed schools could consider opening “if you maintain proper safety and hygiene protocols,” he said.
“I would not hesitate urging my grandchildren to go back,” he added.
Adam Swinyard, superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, said he wanted more time to study the new guidance, but he said the district would continue to follow guidelines from the Spokane County Health District.
Spokane’s 29,000 students began the year with distance learning only. Since then, schools have brought back kindergartners through second graders.
Swinyard noted that positive test rates in Spokane County are roughly double those in Western Washington.
“We’re going to evaluate these guidelines and then have a thoughtful discussion,” said Swinyard, who hopes to bring more students back in January.
The Spokane school board was expected to discuss the issue during its regular meeting Wednesday night.
In Mead, the largest district in the state to begin the year with in-person learning, Superintendent Shawn Woodward said he and his staff felt a sense of confirmation, especially after Inslee praised the district.
The district of 10,500 students had drawn criticism from former Spokane County Regional Health District officer Bob Lutz for its model, which includes full in-person learning for kindergartners through fifth graders and two days per week for other students, including high schoolers.
Mead has experienced higher infection and quarantine rates that neighboring districts, but only 5 positive cases were the result of in-school transmission, according to district.
“It was just really validating, as long as we have our mitigating strategies in place,” said Woodward, who praised teachers and staff for doing “as good a job as anyone could do, given the circumstances.”
“And wearing masks, that’s been absolutely critical,” Woodward said.
At West Valley, Superintendent Kyle Rydell said Inslee’s message confirmed the district’s decision to bring fourth and fifth graders back to buildings in January.
“But everything we’ve been doing is through the regional department of health,” Rydell said.
However, the leader of a parent group, Open Spokane Schools, said the new guidance is insufficient.
“It’s still not going far enough to offer a positive, safe option to every student,” said Joanna Hyatt, who fears that for older students, the return to school still seems far off.
“This doesn’t address high school kids and their social-emotional connections,” Hyatt said. “This is failing them, and I’m disappointed.”
Hyatt also disputed Inslee’s contention that the state had insufficient data in August to justify a more aggressive approach.
“There’s no reason it should have taken so long, because there have been numerous studies,” Hyatt said.
Asked during the news conference why the state didn’t issue guidelines sooner, considering there were recommendations months ago for returning to classrooms, Inslee replied: “We make decisions when we have critical thresholds of data.”
Washington Education Association Larry Delaney said teachers deserved more communication about the pending changes before they were issued. He questioned whether all schools would have adequate protective equipment, ventilation, distancing and training when they reopen.
“The trust and confidence that we can safely return to school is something that must be earned,” Delaney said in a news release.
The state recommends schools start with the youngest students and those with the highest needs. Older students should be the last to return to in-person learning in areas with higher infection rates because high schoolers tend to be more similar to adults in how they can catch and transmit the virus, Inslee said.
Putting people into smaller groups is especially important when the disease rates are higher, said Lacy Fehrenbach, assistant secretary at the Department of Health. It limits the number of close contacts and likely exposures.
“In communities where school is happening, you do not need to revert back to distance learning,” she said. “Keep going” but use essential safety protocols.
Daneille Zerr, medical director of infection prevention and chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said some younger children suffer when being isolated from their peers at home and some older students have developed bouts of depression.
“School is critically important,” Zerr said. “Nothing is without risk. Kids can be brought back to school … when the right precautions are in place.”
With those in place, there is little evidence that schools have been drivers of transmissions, she added.
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