The Bellevue School District is delaying in-person learning until January because of rising numbers of coronavirus cases in King County, scrapping its earlier plans to bring its youngest students back into classrooms in just a few weeks.
“Considering the current level of transmission and the steady increase we have observed over the last week, we do not feel that we can successfully mitigate risks to health and safety if we are to bring larger numbers of students back into our school buildings,” reads an announcement posted Thursday evening on the district’s website.
Earlier this month, when the district initially announced it would restart some in-person learning, King County’s infection rate was 53 cases per 100,000 people, comfortably within the 25 to 75 cases per 100,000 range that state guidelines say would indicate it’s safe to start reintroducing elementary school students to school buildings. On Thursday, the rate had spiked to 92 cases.
Making a call on in-person learning is a difficult balancing act for school districts. There is broad concern about inequitable access to online learning and loss of vital social opportunities calcifying for students for as long as they stay at home, coupled with fears about a school triggering a super-spreader event if it brings students back to the classroom too early.
So far this fall, Bellevue, which enrolls 21,000 students, was the largest district in King County to set a date for moving to in-person learning. Issaquah had also planned to start educating kindergartners and first grade students starting Thursday, but last week it, too, reversed course. The Kent School District said Friday it would remain in remote learning until the end of January.
Other large districts such as Seattle have avoided making statements in response to infection rates, instead describing their plans in vague terms. Seattle says it has no immediate plans to bring large groups of students back.
“We are closely monitoring neighboring districts and national school systems and have seen some districts push reopening dates back repeatedly and schools reopen their doors only to close them again,” Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau wrote in a district newsletter. “We know that rolling closures create more uncertainty and place more burden on families and students. We need to do this transition right, so we only do it once.”
The district is seeking educators to volunteer to teach a class outdoors, an attempt to bring students and teachers together safely and minimize risk.
For now, the only teaching happening in school buildings around the region has been reserved for students with disabilities and for specialized services, including in Bellevue. The district said on its website that it is “exploring options” to bring back smaller groups of students for in-person learning. More details on that will follow soon, the website said.