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Inslee: Schools must reopen to some in-person learning by April

March 12, 2021 Updated Fri., March 12, 2021 at 8:16 p.m.

Gov. Jay Inslee asks for a show of hands from students in David DehlbomÕs 6th-grade class, who would rather be back in the school room and not distance learning, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Gov. Jay Inslee asks for a show of hands from students in David DehlbomÕs 6th-grade class, who would rather be back in the school room and not distance learning, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Spokane. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

OLYMPIA – All K-12 school districts in the state will be required to offer some in-person learning within the next month, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday, almost exactly one year after he announced the closure of schools statewide.

Inslee will issue an emergency proclamation next week that will prohibit districts from failing to offer all students some hybrid model of in-person learning.

“We need to do this,” Inslee said in a news conference, pointing to the “mental health crisis” many students face after a year of remote learning.

Districts have until April 5 to provide some in-person instruction to all K-6 students and until April 19 to provide some in-person instruction to all K-12 students. By April 19, all districts must offer K-12 students in-person learning for at least 30% of average weekly instructional hours, according to Inslee’s office. Schools cannot offer less than two days of on-campus, in-person instruction each week. Those days may be partial days.

Districts must continue to work toward exceeding the 30% minimum and reaching schools’ maximum capacity and frequency in-person as soon as possible.

All school districts in Spokane County and nearly all in Eastern Washington already are operating in a hybrid model, with Spokane public high schools the last in Spokane County to reopen to in-person learning earlier this month.

According to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, elementary schools in the Nespelem School District are the only group in Eastern Washington still fully remote. Middle schoolers in Nespelem, Prosser and Grandview school districts are back in small groups, but most are still remote. High schoolers in Prosser, Grandview, Mabton and Walla Walla are back in small groups but mostly remote.

The rest of the districts that have answered the state’s weekly survey currently have some in-person learning component.

But many West Side districts, including Seattle Public Schools, have refused to reopen to in-person learning, despite Inslee’s urging them to do so for the last several weeks.

A provision in the Legislature’s recent $2.2 billion COVID-19 relief package said districts needed to submit a reopening plan to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction by March 1 in order to receive their piece of the $714 million set aside for school reopening. Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said Friday there are 35 school districts that will not be receiving that funding this month for failure to have a plan for returning students in person. Seattle Public Schools is one of them, he said.

Districts can reapply with a plan and receive the funding at a later point, he said.

As of last week, about 50% of elementary school students, 40% of middle school students and 30% of high school students statewide are receiving in-person instruction at any point during the week, according to OSPI.

In-person learning must comply with Department of Health guidance for safely reopening, including wearing masks, sanitizing and social distancing. Some districts have called for the 6-foot social distancing requirement to be relaxed to allow more students in the classroom at once.

Inslee said Friday’s directive will not change the 6-foot requirement but that health officials will continue looking at the science behind the distance and make a recommendation to change it when they see fit.

The 6-foot requirement is not an impediment to on-site, hybrid opportunities, he said.

The Washington Education Association issued a statement Friday saying it agreed that a safe return to school buildings is best for students. While most districts are already providing some in-person instruction, some have yet to go back as they are waiting to implement health and safety standards, the association said.

“The governor’s announcement assumes that districts have the ability to provide safe teaching and learning,” their statement read. “Some districts are not yet prepared to safely welcome students back to buildings.”

The statement continued: “Shortcutting those safety processes is not in the best interest of our students, staff, or communities.”

Inslee had previously said he did not have the authority to bring students back to school. He said Friday the conditions surrounding remote learning had changed and new information on the extent of students’ mental health crisis allowed him to use existing authority. To issue this proclamation, the governor will declare an emergency focusing on the mental health of children and youth.

“It started to rain, basically,” he said, referring to the mental health issues for students who have not returned to school. He added the state has more knowledge on fighting the COVID-19 virus, and he is responding to the science he now has.

It is an emergency proclamation and is legally binding, Inslee said. State law allows him to prohibit activities “he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health property or the public place.”

Some Republican lawmakers have attempted to limit the governor’s use of emergency powers in proposed legislation this session, but none have been successful.

Reykdal pointed to the effects of isolation on students, including spiking absences and additional needs for graduation waivers. Those numbers disproportionately affect students of color in the state, he said.

Dr. Nwando Anyaoku, director of pediatrics and chief health equity officer at Swedish Health Services in Seattle, told reporters the number of students facing a mental health crisis, such as a suicide attempt, are “heartbreaking.”

“That’s just something we can’t allow to continue,” she said.

Schools in the state are expecting to receive an additional $2.6 billion in federal pandemic relief, according to Inslee’s office. Inslee is encouraging the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to use those funds for mental health aid for students, counselors, nurses and other support staff.

He said he expects districts to continue using the mental health services available for students returning in person and for those who can’t return in person yet for family or medical reasons.

Reykdal said school districts will have flexibility in how they work with students who still are remote even after their school districts return, pointing to in-home visits or county public health resources. He called it “a very complicated endeavor” that doesn’t have a quick fix.

In the executive order, Inslee also will task the Department of Health and the state Health Care Authority with working on recommendations to address the mental health of children over the next year.

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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