The statewide indoor mask mandate ends this weekend, but individual school districts will have the final say in whether they require masks in classrooms.
New guidance issued Tuesday from the Washington state Department of Health clears the way for school districts to make masks optional for students starting Monday. However, the final decision is up to each district, DOH reiterated in a 19-page document that was made public Tuesday.
“Schools, districts, providers, programs, and/or (local health jurisdictions) may choose to put more protective policies in place, which are also required to be followed,” the document said.
Local superintendents met with Spokane Regional Health District staff Wednesday afternoon and will work the rest of this week to review the new guidance and establish what next week will look like in schools.
Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez said that at this point, with trends headed in the right direction, the local school districts will be able to align with the Department of Health guidance and not require masks in schools.
Districts in Spokane County said they plan to continue consulting the district to make their decisions.
“We are currently examining the new guidelines and plan to continue following the requirements outlined by public health officials,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard said in a statement.
At the West Valley School District, Superintendent Kyle Rydell said in an email that the district “will be following the updated DOH guidance” effective this weekend and that “as a district we will continue to work closely with Spokane Regional Health District to support our efforts to provide mitigation strategies in minimizing exposure.”
Some districts, notably Seattle Public Schools, initially announced their intention to retain mask requirements – partly because of opposition from its teachers’ union. The district announced on Wednesday that masks would be optional, however.
There has not been similar pressure in Spokane, said Jeremy Shay, president of the Spokane Education Association.
“Honestly, it’s been almost radio silent here,” Shay said Tuesday. “My take is that people are ready to move along.”
The Mead School District sent an email to district families noting that they will comply with the new department guidance, meaning masks are optional.
Students will still have the choice to wear masks and physically distance from others, which families in the district can communicate to their child’s teacher, the email says.
Most of the information in the DOH guidance is straightforward, and some current precautions will remain.
Schools will be required to continue to conduct some contact tracing, and districts are required to notify all staff and immunocompromised or high-risk students of potential exposure to COVID-19.
Children or staff members who have symptoms of COVID-19 are required to stay home and should get tested. Districts are required to have COVID testing available to staff and students. Students who exhibit symptoms at school are required to be isolated in a designated location where masks are required. Isolation sites in schools are considered health care settings, according to the document, meaning that masks will continue to be required in those settings.
A student, child or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 is also required to isolate, regardless of vaccination status.
The individual may return to school or day care after five full days of isolation only if their symptoms have improved or they are asymptomatic and they are without a fever for the past 24 hours without use of fever-reducing medications.
If returning after the fifth day, the individual “is strongly recommended to wear a well-fitted mask or face shield with a drape during days 6-10 of their isolation period, or test negative with an antigen or at-home test any day after day 5.”
The document notes that “masks may also be required universally during clusters and/or outbreaks in classrooms or with groups of students (such as a choir class or a sports team), or within provider settings, to limit disease transmission and ensure in-person instruction.”
DOH also urged everyone to respect the choices of those who continue to wear masks.
“Some may need to wear a mask because they or a member of their household is high risk for severe COVID-19 disease,” the DOH guidance said.
The new guidance also puts the onus on school districts to add mitigation measures like masks back into place in the event that virus cases increase again, with the help of the local health district.
“As disease prevalence increases, schools and providers should consider adding back in additional layers of prevention or mitigation measures,” the guidance says. “Coordination with local public health will ensure this is done in the way to best ensure the safety of students, children, employees, families, and the community.”
Velázquez noted that there will be some circumstances when particular schools may need to use masks, and in the future, if a new variant or mutation causes an uptick in cases or cause for concern, school districts might need to require masks. Velázquez also noted that some staff and students will likely continue wearing masks even after this weekend.
The health district plans to be in constant communication with school districts going forward about how to best respond to cases and outbreaks in schools.
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