As students and staff returned to school from the holiday break, there were just over 100 days left in the current school year. With mandatory safety measures such as masks and physical distancing strictly enforced in our schools, along with a little help and cooperation from our communities, it is possible to safely return to in-person learning. The science says so.
Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators in Washington state have been reinventing the school experience for students in grades P-12. This has prompted changes in teaching and learning the likes of which have never been seen before. Educators have been incredibly dedicated to implementing a new model for teaching and learning amid the most challenging circumstances imaginable.
This was an extraordinarily difficult pivot for a system that is built upon personal relationships between and among students and teachers. We have learned there are essential elements of the school experience that simply cannot be replicated in a fully remote delivery model.
For students, school is typically a safe, secure and happy place. The remote learning model, for many learners, is severely deficient in this regard. For some, the home environment is not a safe place to learn due to a variety of circumstances. For other students, finding reliable internet access is a daily challenge. Still others simply don’t learn well in an online setting. But more troublesome than the lack of learning is our growing concern for those students facing homelessness, mental-health issues or food insecurity. An alarming number of them are feeling sad, hopeless and devastatingly isolated from friends and caring adults.
This is why we must advance and expand the effort to reopen schools and get students back in the classroom as soon as possible. We now know this can be done safely, when required precautionary measures are in place.
Following the science is the right thing to do. In the early days of the pandemic, it was critically important to employ extreme caution to preserve the safety of students and staff. Taking this approach was also important to ensure that opening schools did not contribute to community spread and further exacerbate the devastating impacts of the pandemic. In the time since, school districts have maintained strict adherence to the guidance and requirements from DOH and local health jurisdictions. That guidance has driven the planning and decision making for the resumption of in-person learning. However, the thresholds for community infection rates, articulated in this guidance, has kept a majority of students at home and learning remotely during the past nine months.
Following the science is still the right thing to do. Since the advent of the pandemic, much has been learned about the disease, community spread, COVID-19’s impact on children, effective strategies for disease prevention, and how schools can successfully execute in-person learning models. A study recently published by the University of Washington and Michigan State University found that opening schools in communities with low to moderate rates of infection did not contribute to COVID-19 spread. It appears that with strict implementation of safety measures such as physical distancing, masking, hand washing and facility sanitation, opening schools may not be as risky as originally thought to be. The fears that schools might be super-spreaders have not come to fruition. Across the country and here in Washington state, school districts have safely and successfully brought students back into the schoolhouse.
Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee made adjustments to the reopening guidance for schools. This was based in part on data from the Institute of Disease Modeling that showed reopening schools does not increase community transmission if certain safety measures are in place. The new guidance provides more flexibility when considering infection rates for communities. Schools can now resume in-person learning for all students if there are fewer than 50 cases per 100,000. If case counts are more than 350 per 100,000, elementary school students may return to school in groups of up to 15 students. This guidance gives schools the opportunity to bring more students back to school in a safe and responsible fashion.
We’ve already seen several school districts from around the state implement in-person learning with success. These districts, from the get-go, were firmly committed to consistent and steadfast implementation of the mandatory health and safety protocols. Wearing masks, social distancing, hand-washing and frequent disinfecting/sanitizing have kept these schools open for in-person learning.
School-district leaders, whose focus is to serve children and young people, stand ready with plans to bring students back into the schools. To fully accomplish this however, everyone must step up and do their part to slow and decrease community infection rates. Reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the community is the most important factor in getting students back in school. Educators need your help. But most important, our students are counting on you.