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Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Inslee directed Washington school districts to offer at least some in-person instruction to elementary students by early April. That emergency proclamation is expected to open up a broader swath of schools in the Puget Sound area, where most students have been learning remotely for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are some commonly asked questions about the return to school:

Gov. Inslee signed an executive proclamation that all K-5 schools need to offer at least some in-person classes starting April 5. Does this mean my school is going back in-person?

By the governor’s order, school buildings are required to reopen to elementary schoolers by April 5. But at least one school district, Kent, has indicated that buildings won’t reopen until later in April. Families should check with their district to find out when in-person school will resume and for information about their school’s schedule. 

As of March 8, about 55% of Washington elementary schoolers were learning in person at least once a week. 

When will middle and high schools reopen? 

Middle and high schools are required to open by April 19. As of March 8, about 38% of middle schoolers and 34% of high schoolers were learning in person at least once each week. 

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What did Inslee say about how much in-person time schools must offer?

School buildings are supposed to open to all students for at least two days of full or partial learning each week. At least 30% of the average weekly instructional hours offered by school districts — 9 to 10 hours for most districts — must be in-person.  

What if I don’t want my kid in a classroom — do I have options?

All students should have access to in-person instruction under the governor’s proclamation. Most if not all school districts in the area are allowing students to continue learning remotely as a precautionary measure for those who may have health conditions. Some school districts, primarily in Eastern Washington, are already operating entirely in person.

Will bus service be offered?

It depends on where you live, and how hard your district has been hit by a national school-bus driver shortage worsened by the pandemic. Some districts and school-bus companies such as First Student laid off or furloughed bus drivers to cut costs when most districts were instructing remotely. In Seattle Public Schools, which contracts with First Student, district officials say they can guarantee transportation only for students who are legally entitled to it, including students enrolled in Head Start, students experiencing homelessness or in foster care and those who receive special education services and have specific transportation needs.

On Wednesday, the Seattle School Board approved a measure to change elementary school start times in an effort to allow bus drivers to run more than one route in the morning and afternoon. For secondary students, the district has said it will give Orca bus cards to students in grades 6-12 when school buildings open to upper grades. In Highline, by contrast, school officials say transportation to and from school will be available for any student who typically qualifies. Bellevue, where elementary school students are already taught in person, has also been able to transport students; district officials say they’re working on confirming routes for secondary students. 

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Seattle Public Schools says an agreement to expand in-person learning needs to be approved by the school board and teachers union. When will that happen? What if they don’t approve it?

On Wednesday, the Seattle School Board approved the tentative agreement to bring elementary students back, and on Friday, Seattle Education Association union members voted to approve it. The district and union are still negotiating a return for middle and high school students. 

If Seattle or any other teachers union does not agree to return to school, the governor’s deadlines still apply. A district could compel workers to return to school buildings because of Inslee’s order as management and labor resume bargaining. 

Why do unions have so much power in the school reopening decision?

Members of Washington teachers unions have the right to pursue collective bargaining agreements with their districts, which usually include parameters for safe working conditions. In Seattle, the most recent agreement with the teachers union requires the district to negotiate a return to in-person instruction.

Some districts in the state came to health and safety agreements with their local unions and prepared buildings quickly, said a spokesperson for the Washington Education Association. Others, however, were “unprepared to provide or agree to needed protections,” slowing the reopening process, the spokesperson said. 

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Does this mean high school graduation will happen in person? 

As of late March, many local schools have set graduation dates but haven’t yet announced plans for in-person or virtual ceremonies. Last school year, commencement ceremonies were largely held online, though several high schools found creative ways to celebrate with car parades and outdoor, socially distanced events. The state’s health department published guidance in late March that says it’s up to school districts to decide how they celebrate, but schools must follow state guidelines that limit capacity at indoor and outdoor events.

How safe are classrooms when it comes to COVID-19 spread?

It depends on how well schools stick to a lengthy set of safety protocols. But in general, schools are considered safer than other areas of public life because they are more easily controlled. A growing body of research suggests that transmission of COVID-19 inside school buildings is very low when everyone inside wears masks, washes their hands and physically distances from one another. Researchers have found that it’s important for students to eat meals outdoors and for schools to contact trace when cases pop up and to set a regular cleaning schedule for classrooms and common spaces.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also now emphasizes the importance of improving ventilation inside schools by opening windows, using exhaust fans in school kitchens and cleaning the air by using air filters or purifiers.

The CDC recently changed its guidance for social distancing in schools by reducing the suggested stretch of space between elementary school students from 6 feet to 3 feet. This week, Washington changed its guidance to reflect what the CDC now recommends.

What safety precautions are Washington schools required to implement?

Washington schools must follow sets of safety protocols from two state agencies, the Department of Health and the Department of Labor & Industries. Each agency has created its own list of procedures, which are updated regularly and can be found online. In general, students and staff must wear masks, wash hands regularly, stay distanced from one another and stay home when sick. Schools don’t have to offer coronavirus tests for students or staff, though several school districts are doing so.

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Kent School District will begin offering in-person learning to students a week late. Are there any penalties for not following the executive proclamation?

While the governor’s proclamation is law and not following it could “potentially create legal issues,” the state is concentrating on spreading awareness and “finding ways to help districts meet the deadlines if they’re having difficulty,” according to a spokesperson for Inslee’s office. In Kent, for example, the school district’s spring break falls on the week of April 5, so the state is permitting the district to roll out its hybrid learning system the following week.

State officials will further address enforcement of the proclamation if they start to receive complaints of willful noncompliance, the spokesperson said.

If there is a COVID-19 case in my child’s class or school, what will happen? 

Under the Department of Health’s requirements for schools, a student or staff member who has a known case of COVID-19 will be sent home and asked to quarantine for 10 days after their symptoms first begin, and at least 24 hours after a fever subsides and symptoms improve. All students and staff who have had close contact with a kid or adult with a confirmed case will be asked to self-monitor for symptoms and quarantine. Close contacts are people who have been within 6 feet, for more than 15 minutes over a 24 hour period, of someone who tested positive, including kids in their classes and siblings at the school. 

If there are two or more confirmed cases within a classroom over a period of two weeks, the whole group must be dismissed to quarantine if they haven’t been already. Depending on the number of classes in a school, a certain number of dismissed classes — or staff absences due to quarantine — can trigger the whole school closing. 

Will schools require teachers and staff to vaccinate like hospitals? 

Staff are not required to be vaccinated to return to school buildings, but K-12 employees are now eligible for vaccination. Most students are not yet eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and are not required to be vaccinated to go back to school.