It’s time to get more students back into classrooms, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday.
In a push to get hundreds of thousands of Washington students in front of teachers again, Inslee — who ordered the temporary shutdown of schools nine months ago — announced new, significantly less-stringent disease metrics for school districts to follow when making reopening decisions.
Under these new benchmarks, which are not legally binding, there are no longer broad recommendations to keep most students remote, no matter how high the transmission rates for the coronavirus. Previous guidance urged districts to stay mostly remote if their county posted an infection rate above 75 cases per 100,000. As of Wednesday, there were about 420 cases per 100,000 people in King County.
Young children are the priority group for in-person instruction, even in regions where coronavirus rates are highest. Bringing high schoolers back is “not recommended” unless transmission rates have plateaued or decreased in an area, Inslee said. And, in the case of an outbreak or increasing transmission rates, school districts do not need to revert to distance learning if they can contain the spread in their schools, said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID response at the state Department of Health.
Despite earlier pushback from the statewide teachers union over adjusting the metrics, which were among the most cautious in the nation, Inslee said he was swayed by data that suggests schools are not significant drivers of coronavirus transmission as long as proper safety protocols are in place.
“The thing that is impressive is that they differ very little,” said Inslee, pointing to a colorful chart produced by the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling, which compared the number of people that a person with coronavirus could infect in an all-remote, partially in-person, and all in-person setting. “That has been an important consideration.”
Inslee said only about 15% of the state’s 1.2 million K-12 students are getting any in-person schooling, which has raised concerns about inequities. That figure is an estimate from the state education department, which hasn’t been asking districts exactly how many students have been learning in person — only for a percentage range of their total enrollment learning inside buildings.
“I am urging all districts to double down their efforts today: labor and management, sitting down immediately to plan for reopening,” said Chris Reykdal, the state schools chief.
“Get to the work of it, follow the safety protocols, and take note we are in the business of serving young people.”
Along with the new guidance came a warning to school districts about following safety and health protocols, including masks, social distancing and contact tracing. Unlike the health metrics, those rules are legally binding, and districts could be subject to “enhanced” inspections if state officials hear of deviations.
The new guidelines still use a hands-off approach to school reopening decisions, which have created power struggles in districts all over the state and wide variance in how school districts have chosen to respond. Inslee stressed that while he has the authority to close schools, he does not have the authority to order them to reopen — that remains a local decision. When asked why he didn’t include disease metrics as part of the legal protocol school districts must follow, such as mask-wearing, he didn’t elaborate.
This week, the Bellevue School District announced it would bring kindergartners through second graders back into the classroom by the end of January. Seattle Public Schools board members are poised to make a decision on a similar proposal this week.
Inslee’s new standards tell schools to reopen for all students when the number of cases in a region are fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 residents.
If cases are between 50 and 350 per 100,000 residents, the new standards encourage districts to open elementary and middle schools.
And in regions with more than 350 cases per 100,000 residents, the new standards say elementary school students can go back to school in groups of 15 or fewer.
“We have held students’ and educators’ well-being foremost in our minds with these decisions,” Inslee said at a news conference in Olympia. “There is risk in returning to campuses, but we are confident now that the risks will be mitigated as long as there is adherence to health and safety measures, like wearing masks, maintaining six feet of physical distance, increased cleaning and improved ventilation.”
He said there have been a few infections traced to schools, but “most have been relatively small with two to five cases, including in counties where COVID activity is far higher than we want it to be.”
During his news conference, which went on for over an hour, the governor brought out several people to make his case: the state schools chief, the Camas schools superintendent, a bus driver, a public health official, a pediatrician and a Seattle parent. There were no teachers or students.
Larry Delaney, the president of the Washington Education Association, said his staff spoke with Inslee about the new provisions, but didn’t feel comfortable being in front of the media without more time to consider the new standards.
He said he appreciated the governor’s stressing of the guidelines for health and safety protocols, but like other union leaders, he expressed skepticism at reducing the disease thresholds.
“My hope is that the governor and those who are advising him are correct,” said Delaney. “This is quite a gamble to take, and ultimately, it’s gambling with the safety of 140,000 educators.”
Delaney said he’s not aware of any teachers who have died of the virus in Washington state. Some educators have caught it, but it’s unclear if it was linked to exposure in a school.
Several teachers unions have filed complaints against their employers with the state Department of Labor and Industries, citing inconsistent safety protocols at schools.
The presentation and new decision tree left Stephen Morse, a Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health epidemiologist who has researched coronaviruses, with a few questions. Morse has advised governments as they developed early warning systems to detect diseases before they spread.
“I’m surprised that they haven’t apparently been doing much actual testing for the virus in schools,” he said. Washington’s data on school-level outbreaks is based on the students who are back in school now, he said, who skew younger. And since research shows the majority of young children are less likely to show symptoms, “if that’s your standard, you’re going to see fewer outbreaks.”
Morse noticed that the state’s new guidelines differ from those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which set the lowest risk at 5 new cases per 100,000, moderate at 20-50 and high risk at over 200.
In general, Morse said, if schools adhere to the state’s safety guidelines strictly, there will be little risk to children. But, he asked, “can you be sure they’re not bringing it back to their grandparents?”
It’s also hard to say how a vaccine could change the timeline of school reopening. Morse anticipated that it may be possible to get significant coverage for adults by mid-spring or early summer, but he noted that the vaccine has not yet been tested on children. And, he added, “I would not throw my mask away until I had more experience of the duration of the vaccine’s protection.”
Inslee also announced other measures, including the expansion of coronavirus testing pilots early next year, which are now in place at nearly a dozen school districts. They provide same-day, no-cost tests to anyone with symptoms, a way to foster trust in the safety of school buildings. Inslee is also dedicating $3 million from coronavirus response funds set aside by the state Legislature to help school districts implement safety measures.
He acknowledged the risks and nervousness some may feel about going back into school buildings. But he expressed confidence in the research he saw.
“Deciding when to close schools is a difficult decision,” Morse said, then added: “It’s much harder to decide when to reopen.”
Correction: In a previous version of this story, Inslee erroneously said he was dedicating $3 million from the state’s share of the federal coronavirus stimulus package to help districts implement safety measures. The story has been updated with the correct source of money, which is the state.