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In effort to get kids back in school, state Republicans introduce bill to change reopening metrics

The Washington Capitol building.  (Rachel La Corte)
The Washington Capitol building. (Rachel La Corte)

OLYMPIA – A proposed bill in the Legislature would change reopening metrics for schools, allowing kids to get back to in-person learning sooner than the current plan allows.

It is one of many Republicans plan to introduce this legislative session to reopen the state sooner. Last week, Republicans opposed new rules for the Legislature that allowed for a remote session. They also opposed extending COVID-19 emergency orders until the end of Inslee’s state of emergency, arguing that the proclamations should only be extended every few weeks.

Co-sponsored by eight Republicans and one Democrat, the bill would require school districts to resume in-person learning in some circumstances and would prohibit any governor emergency orders from superseding it. The new metrics include:

  • School districts in counties below a 5% COVID-19 positivity rate must offer in-person learning to grades K-12.
  • School districts in counties with a case rate below 200 cases per 100,000 over a two-week period must offer in-person learning to grades K-12.
  • School districts in counties with a case rate below 350 cases per 100,000 over a two-week period must offer in-person learning to grades K-8.

School districts that meet any of those standards would be required to return in person, and those who do not could choose if they want to be in-person, remote or hybrid. Those who return in person must also offer a full-time remote option, according to the bill.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun of Centralia, co-sponsor of the bill, said schools should be open to in-person learning and to some extent, he’s “indifferent” to how they get there.

“The remote schooling just doesn’t work for some students,” Braun told the Early Learning and K-12 Education committee on Monday. “The sooner we can safely get kids back in school, the better.”

The current school reopening guidance allows local school districts to decide when to go back to in-person learning, but the state has offered recommendations that districts follow when deciding when to return. Those recommendations say in-person learning for all students can occur when the local two-week COVID case rate is less than 50 cases per 100,000 people.

If cases are greater than 50 but less than 350 per 100,000, schools should consider phasing in a return to the classroom, starting with elementary and middle school students. When the case rate is above 350 cases per 100,000, schools can phase in classroom learning, starting with prekindergarten through Grade 3.

Co-sponsor Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, told the committee the Legislature should assist schools in providing financial resources so they can provide in-person learning to those who want it. Mullet said this bill is extremely important and time sensitive.

“If we solve this at the end of session, it’ll be too late,” he said.

Jennifer Spall of the Washington Alliance 4 Kids supported the bill, saying parents are “extremely frustrated” with decisions right now. Many schools have returned to some sort of in -person or hybrid learning, but it’s only grown the inequities in the education system, she said.

“It’s a system failing our kids, and we refuse to accept that because it’s not OK,” she said.

Lacey Fehrenbach of the Department of Health testified against the bill, saying there needs to be more than one metric to decide when schools can reopen. The decision to reopen shouldn’t be reliant on the test positivity rate alone, she said.

She encouraged sponsors to look at other metrics to include in the bill. She also had concerns about a lack of safety measures required in the bill, such as personal protective equipment or social distancing.

It’s imperative schools follow certain safety guidelines, she said.

Lucinda Young of the Washington Education Association also spoke against the bill, saying it doesn’t seem like the best course of action right now. School districts have flexibility right now to decide when to reopen, she said. Some districts don’t have the capacity to social distance or have enough personal protective equipment to reopen.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane told reporters Monday there is a lot of support for opening schools sooner, but he wasn’t sure if this legislation is the best way to do that. He did agree it was good that legislators are having a discussion about it.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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