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Washington health officials may change their guidance regarding in-person school

Ashley Gross
Middle school students in Port Townsend got screened for COVID-19 symptoms as they entered school last month. The district said on Nov. 21 that it will switch to distance learning after Thanksgiving because of rising coronavirus cases.

Washington state health officials are considering changing the guidance they give to school districts on when to offer in-person education, according to draft documents presented to Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month.

The documents show that health officials are considering telling school districts that they could phase in some in-person learning when coronavirus cases are below 200 per 100,000 people over 14 days. Right now that cutoff mark is 75 cases. Ginny Streeter, a spokesperson for the department of health, declined an interview request and said the metrics are still under consideration and there's no timeline for releasing an update. 

The possible change in guidance comes at a time when coronavirus cases have surged to a record high in Washington. The state department of health said in a statement on Monday that “disease transmission is widespread throughout Washington state and we are at the highest risk we have been throughout the entire pandemic.”

And yet, families burdened with juggling work and remote schooling for their kids are increasingly calling on schools to offer some in-person learning. Countries such as Germany and France have prioritized keeping schools open for face-to-face instruction even as coronavirus case levels have spiked. But any change to the state’s guidance will face pushback from the statewide teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association, which said in a statement that its top priority since the pandemic began has been to ensure the health and safety of students, educators, families and communities.

Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician epidemiologist who directs the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, said the state needs to factor in the educational and emotional wellbeing of children and prioritize face-to-face instruction, particularly for children in younger grades.

“We have done children a huge disservice by not focusing on the importance of getting them to school, and I don’t think people really appreciate that,” he said. “I think a lot of them think, `What’s the big deal about missing kindergarten? What’s the big deal about missing first or second grade?’ It’s an enormous deal.”

That’s because if children are not reading at grade level by fourth grade, they have a much lower chance of graduating from high school, Christakis said. He recently published a paper examining to what degree school closures will reduce life expectancy for kids due to a projected lower educational attainment.

But educators have real fears about returning to in-person school. Christakis said high-risk educators should be given the opportunity to work from home and schools need to provide staff with the requisite protections to minimize risk. However, he said research increasingly shows that COVID-19 is not a serious health risk to kids and children under age 10 appear to be much less contagious than adults. And he pointed out that waiting until everyone, including children, are vaccinated could mean that remote learning drags on for a year and a half.

Washington Education Association President Larry Delaney said the union does not support changing the state’s guidance to districts, saying the current criteria are working.

“For schools to safely open for in-person teaching and learning, we must first get the virus under control,” Delaney said in an email. “We are not close to being there.”

Delaney said that the state needs to establish a way of making sure school districts meet state workplace health and safety requirements before they open and should have an ability to test educators and students for the virus and conduct contact tracing.

“I am proud of the fact that we have kept our students and educators safe from this virus; however, Washington is a part of a quickly shrinking group of states that have not yet lost an educator or student to this deadly virus,” he said.

But Republican state Sen. John Braun, who represents the 20th legislative district in Southwest Washington, supports changing the state department of health guidance on reopening schools because his constituents say remote learning is not working.

“We can’t just sit on our hands and continue to deprive our children around the state of a proper education, and this is not landing equitably on all folks,” he said. “Folks who are more prosperous are already sending their children off to private school where they can get in-person education, and folks that can’t afford that, their children are going without and that’s just not fair.”

Braun said he plans to introduce legislation that would require school districts to provide in-person learning when the rate of positive coronavirus tests is below five percent. That’s the threshold recommended by the World Health Organization.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.