OLYMPIA — Washington will allow K-12 schools to reduce the physical distance between students down to 3 feet from the current 6 feet as a COVID-19 safety measure, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.
That move, which aligns with revised guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, takes effect immediately and is expected to help get students back into classrooms.
“We think it’s time to get back to school; the kids deserve it,” said Inslee during a news conference. “We’re suffering a mental health crisis in our state, and it’s time to get them back in school.”
Inslee said more than 200 school districts in the state have now returned to some kind of in-person instruction, but it remains to be seen how much Thursday’s announcement would accelerate that.
The change for now is optional, and school districts still can require students sit 6 feet apart. But by sometime during the summer, no school district should be using the 6-foot minimum, according to Inslee’s office.
In a statement, Senate Republican Minority Leader John Braun of Centralia applauded the move.
“We asked the governor to endorse 3-foot spacing guidance for classrooms a week ago and appreciate that he has embraced another one of our recommendations,” said Braun in prepared remarks. “For some time, the data has shown that kids can return to school safely with this new guideline.”
Thursday’s announcement lands as Washington officials race to get more people vaccinated before another COVID-19 surge could ignite. Roughly 2.89 million doses have been administered across the state, according to the state Department of Health (DOH), although the number of fully vaccinated people is lower, since two of the available vaccines require two doses.
As of March 20, about 70% of residents aged 65 and older have gotten at least one dose, according to DOH. Almost 14% of Washington’s population has been fully vaccinated.
DOH Thursday also reported a slight uptick in estimated transmission rate of the virus.
“We all need to recognize that the pandemic is not over and significant risk remains, even as we vaccinate more and more people,” said acting State Health Officer Scott Lindquist in a statement. “We need to limit the spread of the virus by actively making good choices in our communities, including wearing masks, keeping our distance, avoiding gatherings and delaying travel.”
The state DOH reported 1,117 new coronavirus cases and 13 new deaths on Thursday.
The update brings the state’s totals to 358,606 cases and 5,213 deaths, meaning that 1.5% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.
The new CDC guidance on schools doesn’t apply to middle and high schools in areas with high incidence of COVID-19. Adults in the buildings are still expected to stay 6 feet from each other.
Many classrooms are too small to accommodate a full class spaced 6 feet apart. To accommodate this, many districts are currently operating or have plans to reopen using a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning. Offering districts flexibility to move to 3 feet could make it easier to bring more students back simultaneously.
But districts may have to bargain changes to distancing rules with teachers unions, adding to a long list of safety procedures that unions and districts have battled over for months.
The move also comes after recent changes by Oregon, California and other states to reduce distancing requirements from 6 feet to 3 feet in elementary schools and some secondary schools.
The CDC initially recommended that schools leave 6 feet of distance between students, but released new guidance on Friday saying that 3 feet is safe in school settings. The agency cited emerging evidence from a handful of states that have moved to 3 feet.