It’s unsafe for a vast majority of Washington’s 1.1 million students to return to classrooms for in-person learning this fall, including for those in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, according to recommendations Gov. Jay Inslee and the state’s top health and education officials announced Wednesday afternoon.

The guidance offers advice to districts — but doesn’t mandate school closures or other measures — based on local incidence of the novel coronavirus. Inslee unveiled the recommendations during a Wednesday press conference, where he was joined by the state’s schools chief Chris Reykdal and state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy.

Officials said where risks are low, schools should prioritize face-to-face instruction for those who are most likely to struggle with remote learning: elementary schoolers and those with disabilities. 

Schools located in “high-risk” areas, which they defined as places with more than 75 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period, should “strongly consider distance learning, with the option for limited in-person instruction” for some students, such as those with disabilities, according to the guidance. Schools in high-risk counties should also consider canceling all sports and extracurricular activities, the guidance states.

As of Tuesday, 25 Washington counties including King, Snohomish and Pierce, were considered high risk. King County had recorded 92.6 cases per 100,000 residents over the two-week period ending Tuesday, according to Department of Health data. Snohomish had recorded 86.8, and Pierce logged 150.8, per 100,000 over the same period.

Schools in the state’s nine “moderate-risk” counties, including Clark and Whatcom, should consider prioritizing in-person learning for elementary school students and those who receive special education services.

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Only five of the state’s counties — Asotin, Garfield, Jefferson, San Juan and Wahkiakum — are “low risk” and have logged fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 residents in the recent two-week period. Schools here should teach elementary schoolers in person and consider a hybrid model for older students that splits their time between in-person and remote instruction.


The recommendations “are based on science, they are based on the health of our children,” Inslee said. “We are not going to allow our state to be hammered by this virus as other states and other countries have been.”

But legally, the guidance amounts to little more than a plea by state officials that public school districts and private schools make reasoned judgments about whether to reopen.

Unlike the spring, when Inslee mandated school closures first in several counties, and then statewide, these recommendations aren’t binding. Inslee said he is concerned schools that open too quickly could spur outbreaks or worsen community spread but is confident most districts will follow the new guidance. He said he decided against local or statewide mandates because school boards in Washington have traditionally had authority to make such decisions.

The new recommendations follow announcements from many of the state’s largest districts, including Seattle Public Schools, that they would begin the school year remotely; nearly half of the state’s students live in counties where public health officials had previously recommended that schools start online. King, Snohomish and Pierce county health officials cautioned against reopening school buildings until the rate of new coronavirus cases drops significantly. 

In June, Reykdal told school leaders that he expected most districts to open school buildings for in-person learning this fall. But since then, the course of the coronavirus has escalated in much of the state. Safety measures in schools — such as requiring masks, conducting temperature checks and cutting class sizes — will do little to slow the virus’s pace unless community transmission slows, King County health officials and researchers from the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling concluded in a recent report.

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Decisions to keep schools closed have inflamed a debate among families and teachers over how to reach children who in the springtime struggled to get online or couldn’t access other crucial services schools offer, such as meals.

Reykdal said on Wednesday that many districts have spent months preparing online learning plans and are far ahead of where they were back then. “We’ve done a lot of work here to be ready for this,” he said. “But nothing about this is ideal.”

When students return in the fall, Reykdal said, schools are expected to resume traditional attendance and grading policies, which were relaxed in the spring. Students will also be required to take federal standardized assessments — a requirement that was suspended last school year.

On Wednesday, Inslee also announced plans to send $8.8 million in federal CARES Act stimulus money to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction — funds that have been tangled up in political red tape and are expected to pay for internet access.