Washington schools are expected to fully open to in-person learning in the fall, the state’s top education official, Chris Reykdal, announced Thursday afternoon.

The move comes as part of a sweeping plan by government officials on Thursday to soon lift several COVID-19 restrictions in Washington and nationwide. Returning to school buildings full time would restore some sense of normalcy for Washington’s 1.1 million schoolchildren after more than a year away from classrooms during the pandemic.

“Students may choose to enroll in a remote-learning program, but school districts may not offer hybrid or remote learning to the exclusion of full-time, in-person learning for any student who seeks that option,” Reykdal said in a statement.

In effect, schools must offer a regular in-person school day to any student who wants it. But districts are also allowed to offer remote and hybrid learning to students who prefer those options. Spending months away from teachers and peers has had a crushing effect on students’ mental health, and hurt some students’ engagement or interest in their studies, Reykdal said.

His message comes after several Puget Sound area districts announced plans for a full reopening next fall. Although schools are open for in-person learning now, many are still operating on a hybrid schedule. As of April, state data shows, about 68% of the state’s students were learning in person one or more days a week.

Hours before Reykdal’s announcement, Seattle Public Schools interim Superintendent Brent Jones said the district is planning for a full return; several other districts announced similar plans over the past week. Jones had hinted at his intention to return to in-person learning last week, when he succeeded former Superintendent Denise Juneau and took his oath of office. Also Thursday: The national president of the American Federation of Teachers said she was “all in” on bringing students back to the classroom.

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But what, exactly, will school look like?

In Seattle, and elsewhere, most details aren’t settled. Some families might choose to continue remote learning; Seattle schools and others have said they will offer a virtual option. Pandemic-era safety measures might loosen — or they might not. 

Athletics and activities? Students and staff might need to take precautions. But in many districts, sports and after-school clubs are expected to resume.

“We’re in a different environment right now so we’ll probably need to make some adjustments. But again, it’s ‘back to the future,’ if you will,” Jones said.

Head of national teachers unions says it’s “all in” for in-person learning

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent emergency authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds was one factor in the district’s decision to move back to full-time classroom learning, Jones said. At least 39 school sites will soon offer vaccines to eligible students, he added. Those clinics begin May 17; members of the Seattle Fire Department are expected to administer the shots. Several other districts, including Bellevue, have also announced vaccine clinics for students.

The news from the state and Seattle Public Schools came just as Washington Department of Health officials announced that schools must continue to follow safety precautions such as mask-wearing and distancing next school year. Students should stay spaced 3 feet apart inside classrooms. Schools need to set up cleaning protocols and ensure classrooms are well-ventilated. Officials said that getting vaccinated is strongly encouraged but not required.

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Seattle Public Schools and many other districts across the state have faced a rocky return to school buildings this spring. A slow vaccine rollout in February and March gave some teachers pause. In April, when districts were forced to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to reopen, students trickled back. In Seattle, many children have stayed home because a lack of school-bus service kept them there. Some families are continuing remote learning because of health concerns or to protect their kids from racism or bullying. 

Jones, who was joined Thursday by School Board Vice President Brandon Hersey and several other district leaders outside South Shore PK-8 in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, acknowledged these concerns and said he’s “committed to making sure our in-person classrooms are safe and nurturing and affirming for all students.”

The district is expected to receive at least $145 million in federal relief dollars, according to estimates from the state’s education department, and Jones said a portion of those funds will support student mental health through social-emotional learning and resilience programs.

Jones acknowledged that the district hasn’t yet bargained with labor unions over the return to school, but said he told the district’s educators union about his intentions and is “definitely open” to discussing reopening plans. Seattle, like many Washington districts, jockeyed with its educators union for months over how to reopen safely this school year; in early March, Seattle Education Association union leaders voted to continue remote learning and took a vote of “no confidence” in Juneau. The district and union eventually reached deals in late March and April to reopen all grade levels. 

In an emailed statement, SEA President Jennifer Matter said the union intends to work with the district on a plan that “appropriately mitigates COVID risk and centers the needs of those most underserved by our system.”

Manuela Slye, president of the Seattle Council Parent Teacher Student Association, said the group wants to support Jones’ work and vision, and have a true collaboration with the new superintendent. She said she hopes the district prioritizes authentic family engagement and collaboration with labor groups. “We have not been functioning as a partnership or unified front, and we have faith in Superintendent Jones that he will be able to bring us back together,” she said.  

The School Board will hold a special meeting May 26 to review the district’s plans to identify and meet the needs of students who need academic acceleration or other support over the summer and next fall. All Washington districts are required to submit a finalized plan to the state’s education department by June 1.