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Governor's office, WEA disagree about their meeting over school reopening guidance

Ted S. Warren
Associated Press
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a news conference, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.

Gov. Jay Inslee and the president of the Washington Education Association had a meeting on Wednesday to talk about the process of reopening schools for in-person learning. But they disagree about the content of the conversation.

In a Facebook post, WEA President Larry Delaney said that the governor agreed not to change the coronavirus case metrics that school districts use to decide when to offer face-to-face instruction. But Tara Lee, communications director for Inslee, said in an email to KNKX Public Radio that the union mischaracterized the conversation and that the governor made no promises to the union about leaving the framework unchanged.

Delaney’s message on the union’s Facebook page said: “There will not be any change to the reopening framework metrics. 200/100,000 will not be happening.” In parentheses, he added: “Keep in mind in these COVID times nothing is guaranteed forever, but that conversation is off the table.”

That number refers to a proposed change under consideration by the state Department of Health to set the threshold for characterizing coronavirus transmission level as “high” when the 14-day rate of new coronavirus cases reaches 200 per 100,000 people. The department said in materials presented to the governor last month that with “reasonable precautions, schools are not significant drivers of transmission.” The current guidance sets that rate at 75 cases per 100,000 people, and that is the threshold when the state “strongly” recommends that school districts shift to distance learning except in limited circumstances for students with high needs.

As remote learning for many students in Washington has dragged on since the spring, parents have increasingly pushed for districts to resume face-to-face instruction. But the statewide teachers union opposes changing the guidance because many educators are worried about getting sick or their students getting sick. That worry has only increased as the virus spreads out of control in Washington, with cases climbing to a 14-day rate of 436 cases per 100,000 people. The state’s goal is to have cases below 25 per 100,000 people.

Lee said in the email to KNKX that the WEA Facebook post was inaccurate in a number of ways.

“These decisions are still under active discussion. To characterize it as a done deal or a done decision is just wrong and WEA should know better,” Lee wrote. “The governor wants to hear from educators and is feeling more optimistic about re-opening schools (even as cases rise), but no decisions have been made yet.”

She said this kind of decision is not solely up to the governor and that any change to the guidance would be made in conjunction with public health and medical professionals.

“We understand the strong desire to get students back in the classroom,” she wrote. “The governor’s office agrees that is the best place for students and we want it to be done in a way that is safe and healthy for students and educators.”

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.