Seattle Public Schools leaders warned parents Wednesday that if coronavirus cases spike after the holidays, classes could be moved online temporarily.
For now, the state’s largest district plans to continue classes in-person Jan. 3, the first day of school for the new year.
“Uncertainty at any time is challenging, but no more so than now, after the stress and anxiety of the last several weeks,” an email to SPS parents said. “We are sharing this information with you now so you can be as ready as possible should your child need to switch to remote learning.”
The move to online learning would be an effort to reduce upticks in COVID-19 cases at schools, similar to a decision the University of Washington announced Tuesday.
Most UW classes will be held online from Jan. 3-9 to help avoid the spread of COVID-19 that could lead to class disruptions. UW officials said they are “committed” to returning to in-person classes Jan. 10.
Although not required, Seattle Schools recommends students get tested for the coronavirus before classes resume in the new year. The district also encourages those eligible for the vaccine (ages 5 and up) and booster shot (ages 16 and up) receive it.
Statewide, vaccination rates have trended lower among K-12 children compared with adults — though most were slower to become eligible for the shots. As of Wednesday, among kids ages 5 through 11, 16.7% have been fully vaccinated, while about 51% of children 12 to 15 and 58.4% of teens ages 16 and 17 have been fully vaccinated.
School districts don’t have the authority to permanently shut down schools — an emergency order has to come from state officials for schools to return to full-time remote learning, Seattle Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson said. However, superintendents can temporarily close schools for emergency reasons, including epidemics.
The decision comes as the omicron variant, which has continued to spread across the state, prompted health officials to urge those eligible for booster shots to get them “immediately.”
Seattle Schools had a sharp increase in positive cases last week, the last week of school before winter break. According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, 135 cases were reported from Dec. 11-17, which was 69 more cases than the week prior — the largest spike since school began.
A group of educators at Cleveland High School staged a sickout last week — forcing classes to be canceled — in part because of an uptick in infections, although recent threats of violence directed at the school was also a reason. Last week, Cleveland High had the largest number of coronavirus cases in a one-week period since school began.
Early studies indicate that when accompanied with a booster, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines appear to be effective at stopping omicron variant infections, The New York Times reported over the weekend. But there isn’t a booster available yet for kids under 16 years old.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden discouraged schools from shutting their doors. “We can keep our K-through-12 schools open, and that’s exactly what we should be doing,” he said.
Other large school districts in the area are set to return to in-person classes. Spokespersons for both the Lake Washington and Bellevue school districts said they expect students to remain in school, full time, in-person. The Issaquah School District is also returning to in-person learning unless the state requires a shift to remote learning, according to a spokesperson.
“Our schools are safe, and our mitigation measures (masks, vaccinations, cleaning/disinfecting, distancing, etc.) work,” said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “The in-person learning environment is the best environment for most students, and it is our continued expectation that schools provide all students with the opportunity to learn in-person full time, with the exception of a temporary shift to remote learning at the direction of a public health officer.”
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