OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee’s frustration over school districts’ slow return to in-person learning came to a head on Friday when he directed districts to offer at least some in-person instruction to all students by late April.
Inslee said he plans to issue an emergency proclamation next week. His announcement comes amid continued bargaining over a return to school buildings among a handful of local teachers unions.
That includes the state’s largest district — Seattle Public Schools— where the plan to reopen classrooms this spring has centered on a far smaller and more gradual return for young students, kids with disabilities and other vulnerable populations.
Fewer than 150 of Seattle’s 50,000-plus students attended schools in person during the first week of March. District and union officials announced last week they were close to finalizing an in-person agreement for preschoolers and students with disabilities to start March 29, the first step of the reopening plan.
“It blows everything up,” said Chandra Hampson, president of the Seattle School Board, of Inslee’s announcement, adding that she still wants to see the district and union meet the March 29 deadline. “It completely changes what we have to bargain … And that’s super frustrating. We weren’t happy about delays (to reopen)… But we wanted to prioritize more in-person time to those less likely to succeed.”
Inslee’s new order will require school districts to offer at least a hybrid model of K-12 instruction, which is a mix of remote and in-person teaching.
“We’re doing this because we have experienced a mental-health crisis for many of our children,” said Inslee in a news conference. “And this will provide them an option that suits their needs, and their families.”The announcement drew quick praise from Republican members of the state Senate and many families and students who’ve struggled during the pandemic.
“We do know that many, many of our children have not been able to thrive as we wish them to do so without on-site education,” Inslee said.
Officials for the educators union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), said they were caught off guard by Inslee, who told them at 8:30 a.m. Friday about the pending directive.
“[Inslee] has been consistent in his messaging that he has the ability to close schools but not to reopen and he has said repeatedly that these are local decisions,” said Larry Delaney, president of WEA. “This is certainly a shift from that.”
Delaney said WEA was not consulted about the decision. He said he has not heard talk of strikes, but said many districts and local unions would have to head back to the bargaining table to hash out agreements over returning to buildings on Inslee’s timeline.
Under the governor’s pending order, K-6 students around the state must be allowed an opportunity for hybrid instruction by April 5.
Then, by April 19, all other students must be given an opportunity to have hybrid instruction.
By that day, school districts will be required to hold at least 30% of their weekly average instructional hours as in-person, on-campus instruction for all K-12 students.
Even with the order, parents will still have the option to keep their children at home if they prefer.
Inslee and the state’s top education official, Chris Reykdal, have said for months that the decision to reopen schools rests with local school boards. But the governor in recent weeks has grown frustrated at the slow pace and as Washington’s schools lag behind those in other states in reopening.
“If I had a nickel for every excuse I have heard for not giving our children on-site instruction, I would be a millionaire at this point,” the governor said last week during a news conference on the state’s COVID-19 response. “These excuses are getting just a little bit tiresome, frankly.”
First Lady Trudi Inslee added to that chorus in an opinion column calling for in-person learning, writing: “This is a responsibility we need to embrace in order to eradicate institutional inequities, one student at a time.”
Friday’s announcement appears to rest on the broad emergency powers that the Legislature long ago granted governors in order to navigate major crises, including powers to issue restrictions. According to state statute, the governor has power over “such other activities as he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.”
In this case, Inslee is restricting school districts from providing remote instruction only.
The governor is declaring a state of emergency that is separate from the current one on COVID-19, which focuses on the mental health of children and youth, said Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee. According to preliminary Department of Health data from February, at least 49 youth died by suicide in 2020, down from 56 in 2019. In King County, four people under age 18 died by suicide, prompting Public Health Seattle & King County to issue a health advisory.
“He has very robust powers in emergencies,” said Hugh Spitzer, a constitutional law expert and professor at the University of Washington. “[Inslee] and his staff are quite careful to find some source in law for his orders.”
The move seems like an “about-face,” said Christie Padilla, president of the Kent Education Association.
“The plan has always been to get kids back in school this year, and I’m concerned the district doesn’t have the time to purchase all the PPE,” or personal protective equipment, she said. The Kent School District, where most students are remote, had already announced plans to bring back its elementary school students in April. While Inslee said he isn’t focused on any punitive measures, the proclamation is legally binding, and “We have full expectations that it will be fulfilled.”
The announcement follows a similar order from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who last week directed all schools to reopen by April 19. Arizona’s governor has also ordered schools to open. It also comes just days after Inslee prioritized teachers and school employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
And it comes almost one year to the day after Inslee directed the state’s public and private schools to shut down as the coronavirus took hold here.
What researchers and health officials know about the virus and how to contain it has changed significantly since then. A growing body of research suggests that schools can reopen and limit in-school transmission when a lengthy set of safety protocols, such as universal mask wearing and social distancing, are used with fidelity. In Washington, schools that reopen are required to implement such measures.
But many of the state’s school buildings are still closed. As of Friday, about 40% of the state’s school children were learning in person at least once weekly.
Melanie Gabriel, a 13-year-old student from Vancouver who co-founded Open Schools USA, a group advocating to reopen schools, said she was pleased with the announcement, but wanted Inslee to go further.
“I’m very excited and happy that I get to go back to school, but I definitely would prefer to be going back 5 days a week,” said Gabriel, who said her school recently began a hybrid model with two days a week in-person. “Even though I get those 2 days, Wednesday through Friday I still feel that unbearably lonely sensation that I felt for almost an entire year.”
“It’s been so lonely and stressful and just so depriving of my physical and mental strength,” she said later, referencing remote-only learning. “I didn’t get out of bed for the longest time because there was no routine that I needed to follow, there was no point in getting out of bed anyways.”
Ann Hennessey, a parent of a third grader at Viewlands Elementary School in Seattle, said Thursday that she was at her “breaking point” with remote learning and was considering moving to a new school district or enrolling her daughter in private school. Hennessey, who works full-time at home, also has a 5-year-old who she cares for while juggling her third grader’s online learning schedule.
Friday’s announcement came as a welcome surprise, she said. Moving or switching schools is now off the table.
But officials with education unions — who are a major political ally of Inslee — have raised a number of safety concerns and have called on the state to speed vaccination of teachers and staff. Transmission in schools is possible, and the state has logged at least 146 outbreaks in schools since the start of the pandemic. An outbreak includes at least two people whose infections are linked.
Will Baur, a teacher in Battle Ground Public Schools, has for the past several months filed records requests with school districts and health agencies seeking more information about COVID-19 cases in schools. A lack of transparency on the data, he said, has lost Inslee the trust of many teachers.
Baur said safety is his main concern as buildings begin to reopen. Administrators at his school, River HomeLink, are requiring teachers to share classroom and office space, he said. He was offered an “office” in a hallway. “I’ve had to report on several staff in my building for not wearing masks in the school building when they were within 6 feet of another staff member,” he said. “Some of these colleagues are refusing to be vaccinated as well.”
Judith Malmgren, alocal epidemiologist affiliated with the University of Washington, is studying COVID-19’s prevalence among different age groups and said that while she’s pleased high school seniors will go back before they graduate, she’s concerned that they aren’t yet eligible for vaccination. Even if teachers are vaccinated, young people won’t be, and could bring the virus home to family members, she said. Her unpublished study of Washington case counts shows 19% of cases are in people aged 0-19.
“We’re vaccinating to prevent illness and hospitalization and death, we are not vaccinating to prevent spread,” she said of the vaccine rollout. “For [Inslee] to open stuff up as if we are, is a fantasy.”
Seattle Times reporter Maya Leshikar contributed to this report.