OLYMPIA – Schools can opt to ease their social-distancing requirements in classrooms to allow more students to return to in-person learning, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.
To follow updated coronavirus guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state guidelines of 6 feet of separation can be cut to 3 feet in most settings, effective immediately, according to Inslee’s office. Three feet is the minimum requirement, and schools can opt to remain at 6 feet.
“The more students we get back into the classroom faster, the better,” Inslee said in a news conference.
Inslee said he fully expects schools to use this 3-foot guidance by the summer or fall, but school districts don’t have to wait to make the switch. Some schools may be able to immediately resume in person full-time, if they meet the 3-foot requirement, he said.
And eventually, schools will be able to remove any distancing requirement, he said.
“That’s not today, but that day will come,” he said.
Most educators in Spokane County are optimistic that social distancing rules will be moot by fall.
With COVID-19 metrics lower than the winter surge and vaccinations rising, the biggest question was when the new guidelines could be implemented to allow for full in-person learning at all grade levels.
Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small said Thursday afternoon that he intends to present a proposal to the school board “for our secondary students to return to in-person learning five days a week.”
“We expect that our School Board will hold a special board meeting in the coming days to consider these changes and how they impact our Central Valley schools’ instructional program,” Small said.
Central Valley seventh-graders and up are learning in a hybrid model, in which students only attend class in person about half of school days. At Spokane Public Schools, fifth-graders and older are doing so.
It’s unclear how quickly the district could move forward to implement the new guidelines.
Classrooms would need to be refitted, buildings would need more frequent cleaning and transportation, and meal logistics would require changes.
“It would be a significant logistical endeavor, but less at the fifth- and sixth-grade level,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard said.
Revisions to the reopening guidelines would also require additional bargaining with the Spokane Education Association.
SEA President Jeremy Shay was skeptical that the changes could happen quickly.
“It’s not as simple as plopping another kid in between, and I think our community sees it that way,” Shay said. “There’s just a lot of questions that have to be answered, before we can implement this.”
The Washington Association of School Administrators took a guarded but optimistic view of the news.
“Today’s statement from Gov. Inslee is welcome news, particularly for those districts already positioned to bring more students back on campus for in-person learning,” said WASA Executive Director Joel Aune.
“Some districts will need more time to adjust and plan under this new guidance, though this development puts everyone on a pathway to more fully reopen schools for in-person learning by the fall,” Aune said.
There are some limitations to the new 3-foot rule, and state health officials want districts to remain cautious.
Staff must remain 6 feet apart from each other and from students. When students are eating or taking part in activities without masks, such as band practice, they must remain 6 feet apart.
Lacy Fehrenbach, Department of Health deputy secretary for COVID-19 response said studies across the country have shown a social distancing requirement under 6 feet doesn’t change transmission modeling in schools by much. But students and staff must continue wearing masks to slow the spread.
In Washington, middle and high school students who are not in cohorts must still be placed 6 feet apart when community transmission of the COVID-19 virus is more than 200 cases per 100,000 people.
Current transmission activity across the state could be worrisome, Fehrenbach said. The state’s case rate is now plateauing, meaning numbers are about where they were last fall, but still higher than they were last summer.
She said it was “imperative” that communities and school districts move forward cautiously.
Inslee agreed, saying there was “reason for both joy and diligence today.”
He cited the prevalence of vaccines as the reason the change in guidance is possible. Fehrenbach said most counties have told the department they are close to completely vaccinating their educators, but did not have the number of school staff in the state fully or partially vaccinated.
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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