Kennewick schools in Benton County were set to open their doors to middle and high schoolers today, just as the county was headed toward its third peak in coronavirus cases. Still, local health officials said the southeast Washington district could phase in hybrid learning. And many of its youngest students had already returned to elementary schools. 

Then 13 days ago, the plan came crashing down. School officials voted Oct. 21 to reverse course for older students until next February amid rising case counts and safety concerns.

The reaction was swift: relief from some, but a mix of fury, shock and despair from many others. “I ended up crying because that’s more than half of my senior year gone,” said Olivia Galbraith, 17, a senior at Kamiakin High School in Kennewick who has attended rallies calling for school to open. This week, under intense pressure from families, the district’s superintendent said the school board may consider bringing students back sooner.

Reopening schools is going to be many magnitudes more difficult than originally imagined, even though state health officials on Wednesday suggested that it might be safe to begin teaching in-person again. In the greater Seattle area, most school districts are not planning to go back in-person until at least January.

State guidance suggests buildings stay closed until coronavirus cases are below a threshold of 75 per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. That target has kept districts from taking decisive action; just as case counts fall, they spike again. Districts also have to stock masks, craft safety protocols and get creative about social distancing in classrooms. 

Educators are worried about the turmoil that would be caused by reopening and then closing down again if cases go up. And they’re concerned about liability. Over the summer, more than 100 superintendents asked Gov. Jay Inslee for protection against coronavirus-related lawsuits. Inslee has not responded, said Deborah Callahan, who helped write the letter and is executive director of Washington Schools Risk Management Pool.

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Then there’s politics: whether communities buy into the idea of reopening and are assured of their children’s safety, and their own. In Kennewick, where the political will runs in favor of reopening, concerned citizens are holding rallies and petitioning for schools to begin face-to-face teaching. Many districts have been swayed by opinion instead of science as they’ve made reopening decisions, new research shows.

Missing from the public conversation is a serious look at how schools will contain cases when they arise in classrooms — and how local districts and the state will track such cases and report them. State education officials say they aren’t logging cases and don’t intend to. And state health officials are only collecting outbreak information, not data on individual cases. 

Research on school safety during the pandemic isn’t conclusive, further complicating the reopening playbook. We know that children can become infected and spread coronavirus, though younger children seem to be less likely to seed infections in adults than their older peers. Emerging evidence hints that schools aren’t super-spreader sites when they take safety precautions and coronavirus incidence is low in the community, especially true in elementary schools. Last week, state health officials called this early evidence encouraging.

Districts have been left to interpret these data and navigate political pressures on their own. Education and health officials have issued reopening guidance while deferring to school boards to decide the details. It’s not working, said Robin Lake, director of the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education.

“Imagine if [the state] said that if this were an earthquake. Why are we treating this any differently?” said Lake, who is studying school reopening plans in and outside the U.S. 

“We have a long tradition of education being locally decided, locally controlled. But you know, that’s all well and good in normal times. These are not normal times.”

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“What we’re being told to do changes”

In September, a window to return to schools opened in Tacoma. Coronavirus counts were down, and teachers and staff were ready to bring some students back to classrooms on Sept. 28.

Then cases started to creep up. And the district discovered another wrinkle: School employees weren’t mentioned in the state’s new workplace mask guidance.

District staff say they called the state’s Labor & Industries department, which sets safety standards for workplaces. What they discovered: to safely open, they’d need to individually fit more than 500 employees who work in close proximity to students — such as school nurses and special educators — with N95 masks. Such masks offer more protection, but require a “fit test” to ensure they work properly.

State mask guidance now includes information for schools, though state education officials say Tacoma is going above and beyond what’s required. But the case offers a look at the details districts need to consider before reopening, how the volatility of coronavirus case counts can thwart plans, and the confusion that’s cropped up as new guidance is written on the fly.

“Plenty of folks out there think the school districts don’t know what they’re doing,” said Dan Voelpel, Tacoma Public Schools spokesperson. “We know what we’re doing. It’s just that what we’re being told to do changes.”

Because of issues like this, dozens of Washington districts — including Seattle, Bellevue and Issaquah — are warning that most children will learn remotely until at least early next year, or haven’t set reopening dates at all.

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A majority of the state’s 295 districts have opened buildings to serve some students: 129 districts are serving 1-10% of students in-person, while another 69 are serving 11-75% of their students this way, according to state data from Oct. 12. Only 57 districts are serving more than three-quarters of their students face-to-face, while 43 are serving no students in person. Many are only serving children with disabilities, because they struggle to learn online.

Issaquah was one of the first districts to set a target reopening date for some elementary kids, then reverse course.

The district intended to bring some elementary students back Oct. 15, but struggled to reach an agreement with teachers. And then rising coronavirus cases foiled those plans. “There were some teachers very concerned, others very anxious to get back in [schools], but then the virus count started going back up again and that’s been very frustrating,” said Ron Thiele, Issaquah School District superintendent. 

Thiele said he’s been criticized by some parents and staff who wondered why he set a goal before the details were worked out. 

“Fair point,” he said. “But one of the challenges is my community is somewhat divided. There were some who thought I was crazy for even trying to bring kids back at all.”

Missing data

Researchers who study reopening strategies say it’s time to pivot. Important questions about students, such as the extent of learning loss, remain on the back burner as talk over reopening plans continues to dominate the conversation, Lake said.

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“We should shift the discussion from the risk of opening K-12 schools to how those schools can open while minimizing risk,” said Melinda Buntin, chair of the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Buntin said researchers and school leaders should study what’s working in schools that open successfully without cases, or are able to contain cases rapidly, to help learn from those examples.

But we may need more data to safely move forward. Ideally, districts would report safety plans to parents and staff and set up contact tracing and coronavirus tracking protocols.

Like many other states, Washington isn’t systematically keeping track of cases in schools, so it’s tough to know whether those that have reopened have minimized coronavirus risk within buildings, and what factors made this possible. “We’re not collecting data in any systemic way,” Buntin said.

Even without hard data, we’re beginning to learn some lessons from districts teaching in-person, most of which are east of the Puget Sound area. 

Among the few districts that regularly release internal data, we’ve learned that incidence tends to match or be lower than that in the community. We’ve also learned that state guidance on when to open schools has had limited influence. Moses Lake and Clarkston school districts, for instance, continued in-person learning despite coronavirus levels far above the state’s recommendations. 

Those districts’ superintendents recite long lists of nuts and bolts changes they say allowed reopening anyway: hybrid scheduling, cutting class sizes, hiring teachers, taking temperatures. They also offered families and teachers choices, including full-time remote instruction, and won support for their plan from a majority of the school community. 

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“If this is our new reality and we have the moral and ethical responsibility to educate students and to help them learn and grow and develop …  people need to have an opportunity to have a voice in how they access learning,” said Moses Lake superintendent Joshua Meek. He’s not concerned about liability, he said, since public health officials have only issued guidance — not orders — to keep schools closed.

Reopened districts are also developing protocols for how to contact trace, contain spread and close back down. In Clarkston, officials logged 10 coronavirus cases as of Oct. 22; at one point, 20 employees were asked to quarantine for two weeks because they’d been exposed, said the district’s superintendent, Thaynan Knowlton. The district has created a dashboard so it can track how many substitutes are available to step in when staff are out.

But he’s also preparing for the day he has to pull the plug. “There are two possibilities of how school could go fully remote: the case load increases, or I run out of adults.”

The Puget Sound area may learn lessons from such districts, but there are clues that buildings won’t reopen here anytime soon, said Brandon Guthrie, assistant professor in the departments of global health and epidemiology at the University of Washington. Other cities are also struggling to build confidence. In New York City where schools opened a month ago, only a quarter of students have decided to return for any in-person classes.

“There does not seem to be the will to move in that direction,” he said. “And I will be completely honest and say I’m not sure what it would take.”