Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee said successfully returning students to traditional classrooms in the new year, and getting them there via school buses, hinges on following established safety protocols in response to COVID-19.
Inslee stated in a press conference last week that while there can never be zero risks involved in reopening schools, following safety precautions can allow for a reasonably safe transition back to in-person learning. He continued, adding that based on research and recommendations from national experts, there are very few cases of infections being transmitted at K-12 schools, even in counties where the COVID-19 case count is high.
The school reopening guidance issued by the governor in June had stated that schools would hopefully be reopened for the 2020 fall semester. The updated guidance released on Dec. 16 stated that research and data from other states’ schools reopening indicate schools do not account for high transmission rates of COVID-19. It recommends the resumption of in-person learning, providing that health and safety protocols are followed.
Inslee pointed out that while he has the power to close schools down, he does not have the authority to reopen them. He encouraged individual school districts to assess their local county situations before reopening, and he stressed the importance of trust between the community and the schools. He added that wearing face masks, frequent sanitation, and maintaining social distancing will help to relieve some of the anxiety that families are facing about sending their children back to classrooms.
“This is an important part of getting students back into school. Following the requirements must be a binding agreement,” said Inslee.
Ryan Peterson, a school bus driver from Washington’s Kennewick School District, also spoke during the press conference. He said that his district is transporting their elementary students in accordance with safety guidelines. This includes keeping bus windows open for ventilation and utilizing electrostatic sprayers to sanitize before and after each driver’s route.
When asked about his concerns with transporting students during the pandemic, Peterson replied that while he has reservations, he is grateful for the support from the district staff to help alleviate concerns by ensuring that safety protocols are being strictly upheld.
Inslee recommends that when the COVID-19 case rate drops below 50 cases per 100,000 residents stateside, then schools should consider reopening for in-person learning. He advised returning students incrementally and following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended safety guidelines. If cases rise higher than that threshold, Inslee said that schools may stop bringing in additional students but he recommends not closing the school entirely down. Instead, he advised working with the students who are already back for classroom learning, till the case rate goes down.
Department of Health Assistant Secretary of Prevention and Community Health Lacy Fehrenbach reiterated the importance of in-person learning, not only for the educational benefits but also to provide emotional and mental support for students, during the press conference. She, however, stated that it must be done safely.
She added that the Department of Health plans to release a “playbook” to assist with expanding reopening. Fehrenbach said that COVID-19 testing and contact tracing will be tested in schools, to help provide strategies for safe and effective in-person learning.
While Inslee praised the efforts of educators to create virtual learning environments, he added that there is still inequity for students who can’t easily access the tools and environment needed for successful remote learning. These disparities, he said, are why it is crucial get as many students as safely possible back into the classroom.
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Chris Reykal, state superintendent of public instruction, said that there must be focused diligence from the entire statewide community to keep cases down, so that the students who are struggling with distance learning, such as students who don’t have internet access and English language learning students, and students with disabilities, can receive the necessary educational support they need.
“Students are struggling, in pretty unprecedented ways all across the country,” said Reykal.
Sebrena Burr, the strategic advisor for the Seattle Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA), concluded the press conference by pointing out that mental health is a key factor in the urgency to reopening schools. She added that a student, teacher and parents have committed suicide in Seattle since the pandemic caused school closures in March. Since there is no way to give every student the resources needed for successful distance learning, Burr continued, a return to in-person learning is crucial.