After months of online school, three of our grandchildren are now back in their classrooms. It has been a long road. After one day back on-site, our third-grade granddaughter said, “Best day ever!” and our second-grade grandson said, “My teacher’s heart was happy.”

As a grandmother, I witnessed the demanding challenges of remote learning, and I marveled at the educators who led with skill and compassion. I applaud educators who guided students whose lives were thrust on a course never imagined as they now head toward futures yet to be determined. Despite everyone’s best efforts, from staff to students and families, the temporary bridge of remote learning is not a permanent substitute for in-person instruction for most of our students.

Living with the pandemic has been both exhausting and inspiring. Early on, we did not know how to fight the virus. We appreciate the courage and dedication of our first responders as they cared for those in need then and now. Never did we imagine COVID-19 would continue to spread exponentially as we entered 2021. Never did we imagine that so many would become infected, that so many would die, or that our public schools would remain closed.

Now science is teaching us how we can fight this virus and safely reopen schools. We can reduce infection by wearing masks. We know distancing, proper ventilation, personal protection equipment and hygiene practices work. And now, due to President Joe Biden’s directive, educators and licensed child-care providers are eligible for the vaccine in our state and nationally.

There is a light at the end of this long dark tunnel.

We need to follow the safe path forward that is being set by many classrooms across Washington. My husband, Gov. Jay Inslee, has visited schools in Buckley, Puyallup, Spokane, Bellevue and Pasco. He interacted with students and teachers who are thriving. One shared that being in-person is 1 million percent better than online. The courage of educators on the front line of reopening in Arlington, Moses Lake and Eatonville, among others, has shown that in-person learning can operate safely and effectively for all involved.

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The latest data from reopening plans submitted to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction shows that 497,000 students were in in-person learning before March 1. That’s roughly half of school students who still don’t have an option for in-person instruction right now. While the reopening plans show that another 323,000 students will be offered an in-person option in April and May that will still leave a large proportion of students (about one-third of middle schools students, and one-third of high school students) with no option for in-person instruction before June.

There have been very few in-school transmissions, and these have been managed to prevent further spread. This is a testament to the dedication and professionalism of the educators who first took this leap of faith and used innovation to adopt protocols that have demonstrated conclusively that in-person learning can be done safely while delivering quality instruction. From teachers to bus drivers, to cooks and nurses, all classified staff has stepped up to make this possible. This courage and determination are models for administrators statewide, who must provide educators with the resources necessary to make safe education a reality.

Existing educational and economic inequities have been exacerbated by COVID-19, and while not a complete solution, a return to in-person learning would ease systemic barriers faced by families during the pandemic. Apart from the long-term impacts of the loss of educational opportunities, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for a return to on-site learning because so many children are missing out on vital services they receive through school and are exposed to additional risks from abuse, and the impacts of trauma. Students living in poverty, those who are unhoused and foster students are most at risk. Students with disabilities, English learning students, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) students, and those lacking access to technology will all receive additional supports and resources once our schools open their doors.

We must not ignore the needs of these students. We owe them our full support as we work to close the opportunity gap. This is a responsibility we need to embrace in order to eradicate institutional inequities, one student at a time.

All students deserve to thrive and reach their full potential. I am asking us all to step up and together make this possible. Washington students deserve the best educational experience we can offer.