We’re heading into a third school year marked by the pandemic. 

This back-to-school season, thousands of Washington children will ride school buses, find their desks and sit down for lunch with peers. In-person learning will be ubiquitous again, even if being fully vaccinated isn’t: Only 40% of Washington 12- to 15-year-olds are vaccinated — and so are 47% of 16- and 17-year-olds. A vaccine for young children isn’t expected until midwinter. 

But just as schools attempt to get back to normal, the pandemic is taking a dizzying direction. The more virulent delta variant is driving case counts to new peaks — just as school safety measures, like grouping small numbers of students into learning cohorts, have gone away. It’s the first time in more than a year that most Puget Sound area schools will teach all their students at once.

The Seattle Times is turning to experts to answer readers’ most pressing questions. Last week, experts offered guidance on picking the best masks for kids, addressing children’s anxieties and following school safety mandates. Now that school is days away, families are asking about mask policies and what will happen if cases crop up in classrooms.

We answer those questions and more here.

How can caregivers ease their kids back to school this fall? 

Many kids settled into a new “routine” during school closures: They went to bed late, slept in, found comfort in video games or Netflix, or whiled away time inside instead of exercising or getting outdoors. 


Experts say it’s time for a reset. “Are (kids) getting adequate sleep, are they having regular meals, are they getting regular physical exercise?” said Lisa Barrois, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s hospital. Those are all questions caregivers need to ask themselves as their kids get back into the swing of a regular school schedule. Getting good sleep can have a significant effect on a child’s mood and ability to learn, she said, so families should consider setting consistent sleep and wake times.

The pandemic proved the importance of maintaining a routine: Kids who had structure in their day-to-day lives were protected against developing serious mental health concerns, new research suggests.

Caregivers should also model ways to stay calm or work through anxiety, Barrois said. “It’s helpful if we show our kids we can be stressed and we can cope with it in effective ways,” she said. “That helps them learn how to cope with their stress.”

If you have unvaccinated kids, act like ‘nobody in household’ is vaccinated, experts urge — and more back-to-school advice

Masks are mandatory. What will schools do if kids refuse to wear one?

Not every child will wear their mask willingly. And some parents are against masking.


But every person — no matter their age or vaccine status — is required to wear a mask inside school this year. State officials say they expect schools will treat defiant kids or parents like they would in any other school discipline scenario. They might give a child a warning, send a note home, or call a caregiver to speak one-on-one. Ultimately, state education officials say, schools may have to exclude kids from class if they refuse to wear a mask.

Schools have a new incentive to follow the rules: They could face serious financial consequences. In late August, the state’s top education official said schools that willfully violate the mask mandate — or a new vaccine requirement for school employees — are at risk of losing state funding. 

Does wearing a mask get in the way of a child’s ability to socialize or learn? 

Wearing a mask is a little like wearing sunglasses, Barrois said. When you speak to someone whose eyes and eyebrows are covered, it might be more difficult to read their expressions. But people in sunglasses — or those wearing a mask — often send nonverbal cues to signal how they’re feeling or what emotion they’re trying to express. 

“We have over a year’s worth of data now that kids are able to be themselves and communicate quite effectively when they’re wearing masks,” she said. “I don’t think there’s reason to be concerned.”

Will state officials require that kids get vaccinated against COVID-19?

To attend public school in Washington, kids must be up to date on a long list of shots. The COVID-19 vaccine isn’t one of them. 


School vaccine requirements are set by the Washington State Board of Health, which develops many of the state’s public health rules and regulations. This summer, the board said it wouldn’t require the COVID-19 vaccine because it wasn’t fully licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; in late August, the FDA approved Pfizer’s shot in those ages 16 and up.

Despite the vaccine’s approval, officials from the state board said last week that they’re sticking to their position. They won’t require eligible schoolchildren to get a vaccine — at least for now. The next time the board could take up changes to its rules is during its meeting in mid-October. 

It’s a different story for adults. In August, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all public, private and charter school employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18. 

Will caregivers be able to find out if their child’s classroom teacher, bus driver or any other school employee is vaccinated? 

In short, no. 

School employees, volunteers and visitors must be fully vaccinated, but Inslee left room for adults to seek medical and religious exemptions. It’s possible, then, that not all adults inside school buildings will be vaccinated against COVID-19.

A school employee’s vaccination status is protected by personnel confidentiality rules. So parents or caregivers won’t necessarily know if their child’s teacher is vaccinated, said Katy Payne, spokesperson for Washington’s education department. School districts can require unvaccinated employees to take certain safety measures, such as regularly taking a COVID-19 test. But decisions like this are up to individual school districts.


What will happen if there’s a big COVID-19 outbreak at school?

It depends. All school districts have to notify public health officials when cases crop up. But how an individual district responds to an outbreak depends on guidance or mandates from local health officials.

Schools have options. For instance, they can require individual students or staff to stay home, exclude whole classrooms of kids, move to a hybrid schedule or shut down in-person learning entirely.

To keep track of when and where outbreaks spring up, the state is keeping a running log. According to a state report from July, schools logged 310 outbreaks — involving 1,171 people — from August 2020 to late June 2021. Most of these outbreaks were small: about 71% involved only two or three cases. Some districts, including Seattle Public Schools, have created online dashboards to track cases. 

Almost 40% of all outbreaks last school year were recorded in the months after Inslee ordered schools to reopen this year. Schools logged 63 outbreaks in May and 57 in June.

Why are online offerings uneven across districts this school year?

When Inslee ordered school buildings to reopen last March, he and other state officials sent a strong message: Children learn best when they are in person.


By many accounts, remote learning was a frustrating — even harmful — experience for many students. But some children thrived, and their families hope to continue online education this school year. Other families are concerned about the delta variant, and want to hold off on returning to school until case counts are lower, or their children are eligible for a vaccine.

School districts are no longer obligated to provide alternatives to traditional in-person learning, though. Several districts have built virtual academies or other online programs, but not every district has one.

Some districts with virtual programs allow kids outside the district’s geographic borders to enroll; families living in a district without a distance learning program can search for these types of programs and find information about transferring on the state’s education department website.