Schools across Washington will be open for full-time in-person learning next fall as state leaders push for a return to normalcy.
The move affects all 1.1 million schoolchildren in Washington, sending all of them back to school buildings after many have spent more than a year remote learning via computer.
The Thursday announcement by Chris Reykdal, the state’s top education official comes amid improving COVID-19 metrics and vaccinations becoming available to more and more children. Just this week the Pfizer BioNtech vaccine was approved for children ages 12 and up.
“Students may choose to enroll in a remote learning program, but school districts may not offer hybrid or remote learning to the exclusion of full-time, in-person learning for any student who seeks that option,” Reykdal said.
School districts also should prepare to provide instruction for students who are excluded from school due to illness or quarantine, the state Department of Health said in a statement.
At the same time, the agency recommends that “all students, school personnel, volunteers, and visitors must wear at least a cloth face covering or an acceptable alternative when indoors, as well as outdoors where a minimum of 6 feet distancing cannot be maintained.”
However, there will be no leeway on face-coverings, even as the CDC relaxed its guidelines on Thursday.
On Wednesday, Lacy Fehrenbach, the state COVID-19 response deputy secretary, said that school districts should create two plans for the fall: one that involves social distancing and one that doesn’t. In either case, masking will be required.
“So we’re asking schools to have both of those plans and we will keep them posted over the summer as we monitor the science and course of disease and vaccine uptake in our state,” said Fehrenbach.
Reykdal cited “negative impacts on many of our students’ mental and behavioral health, as well as their engagement with and success in school” for the push to return to buildings.
He also said he expects a higher level of safety in the fall thanks to vaccination and other mitigation.
Reykdal said he “strongly encourages” eligible students, families and school staff to get vaccinated. He emphasized that the shots won’t be mandatory this school year.
“Immunization requirements, which are set by the State Board of Health, take time to review, approve, and implement – and we are far away from that happening,” he said.
At Spokane Public Schools, Superintendent Adam Swinyard said the district is reviewing the guidelines and working with local public health officials on the logistics of reopening the school buildings for full-time classes.
He said that from the onset of the pandemic, the district “has maintained an unwavering commitment to follow public health guidelines and return students to in-person instruction as soon as possible.”
At Central Valley School District, spokesperson Marla Nunberg said the district is reviewing the new requirements.
At Seattle Public Schools, buildings are expected to fully open to in-person learning in the fall, interim superintendent Brent Jones said Thursday.
Other districts, including Bellevue, Tacoma and Highline, have also announced their intentions to be fully in-person this fall, and on Thursday the national president of the American Federation of Teachers said she was “all-in” on bringing students back to the classroom.
In an address on social media, Randi Weingarten said the wide availability of vaccines and a new infusion of federal education money have removed many obstacles that prevented schools from opening.
“Conditions have changed,” Weingarten said. “We can and we must reopen schools in the fall for in-person teaching, learning and support. And keep them open. Fully and safely, five days a week.”
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