Seattle public school students will continue learning remotely until at least Jan. 28, school officials announced late Friday afternoon.

It’s the latest area school district to decide to continue virtual classes for the rest of the year, as COVID-19 cases climb in the region. Earlier this month, the Bellevue School District said it would delay in-person learning. But unlike Bellevue and several other districts that have backtracked on reopening, such as Issaquah and Tacoma, Seattle had not set a firm reopening date.

The Seattle district, which serves more than 53,000 students, began the school year remotely but has weighed options for returning in-person, such as teaching some classes outdoors. Friday’s announcement doesn’t rule out that possibility, officials said. But only a handful of students — those who receive special education services and can’t learn remotely — will qualify for in-person learning in school buildings before the end of January. 

Officials cited increasing coronavirus case counts in King County, and said they made the decision after consulting with labor representatives, school board members, students, and members of the Seattle Council PTSA. As of Friday, coronavirus cases in King County had reached 93 per 100,000 residents, far above state officials’ recommended threshold for reopening school buildings. Cases should be between 25 to 75 per 100,000 to safely bring elementary school students back to buildings, state guidelines say.

Seattle Superintendent Denise Juneau also hinted that remote learning may extend past January.

“There is also no guarantee that we will be able to increase in-person instruction next semester,” she wrote in a message to families and staff on the district’s website. “We are hoping to provide some certainty in this uncertain time by making this announcement today and commit to keeping you informed and included as more decisions are made going forward.”

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The decision by the state’s largest school district is a pivotal moment: students will have been away from their peers and teachers for almost a year if they return to buildings in late January.

The move also raises important questions about what districts must do to safely reopen. Although districts such as Seattle and Bellevue have cited rising coronavirus case counts, other factors are at play, such as access to personal protective equipment for staff and buy-in from families and labor group members that might be reticent to go back to school. Some Washington districts that have already returned to school buildings, such as Moses Lake and Clarkston, have recorded COVID-19 cases among students and teachers; Moses Lake is keeping an online record, and as of Friday, had reported 21 cases since the school year began.

Officials making reopening decisions are weighing these safety concerns against the realities of keeping buildings shuttered — the possibility of steep losses in learning, particularly among low-income students; serious mental health and social-emotional effects among children who feel isolated; and reduced access to hot meals and caring adults.

In her letter to the district community, Juneau said the district will hold a public work session on reopening plans from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 30.