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caption: Jackson Elementary student Jared Rodriguez, center, attends class in Amanda Baker's 4th-grade classroom on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, at Jackson Elementary School along Federal Avenue in Everett. With hybrid learning, students have the option to attend in-person classes two days per week.
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Jackson Elementary student Jared Rodriguez, center, attends class in Amanda Baker's 4th-grade classroom on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, at Jackson Elementary School along Federal Avenue in Everett. With hybrid learning, students have the option to attend in-person classes two days per week.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Washington state loosens classroom distancing rules to speed up school reopening

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced Thursday that the state is loosening a social distance requirement for children in school to 3 feet apart, rather than 6 feet. The change, which reflects recent CDC guidance, would enable many schools to reopen to significantly more students at a time.

"The more children we get back in the classroom, the faster, the better," Inslee said in announcing the rule change, which takes effect immediately. Districts are allowed to temporarily maintain their existing 6-foot requirements until the end of the school year.

While the 3-foot rule applies across elementary grades, it has caveats for older students. In middle and high school, the 3-foot rule applies where community coronavirus transmission rates are low or moderate, with fewer than 200 positive tests per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. In areas with high rates of transmission, the 3-foot rule also applies if students are kept in cohorts.

Otherwise, the 6-foot rule will apply in areas where transmission rates are high and students are allowed to mingle with others across the school.

As of Tuesday, King County transmission rates were moderate, at 104 positive tests per 100,000 residents in the previous two weeks.

The new rule still requires that staff keep a 6-foot distance between students or colleagues, as adults appear to be better at spreading the coronavirus than children. Six feet of distance will also be required between students when they are not wearing masks, such as when eating, and in common areas like auditoriums. Those exceptions mirror the CDC guidance.

By mandating the 3-foot distance rule to begin in the summer, the governor is making another move to speed the momentum of school reopening, which has been beset with safety debates between districts, unions and families.

The rule change makes it much easier for many schools to offer students in-person classes, particularly in urban areas. In many districts, class sizes are often 30 students or larger, forcing schools to reopen to students in shifts, with only half of each class on campus at a time.

Seattle, for instance, plans to reopen in phases starting next week, with class sizes of 15 students that meet in half-time morning or afternoon cohorts four days a week.

"I am so convinced that having more children back into school to have those magic relationships with their tremendous educators is absolutely necessary, to their wellbeing right now," Inslee said.

But Larry Delaney, president of Washington Education Association, said that districts need to first discuss distance changes with their unions.

"Any changes to social distance guidelines in schools must be made in partnership with local educators’ unions as well as the community members most impacted by the pandemic. This includes low-income and BIPOC students who, for health and safety reasons, are not able to return to in-person learning this year," Delaney said in a written statement following the governor's announcement.

Tensions between K-12 staff and the governor's office are high after Inslee signed an emergency proclamation last week requiring districts to offer students in elementary grades in-person learning part-time by April 5, and middle and high school by April 19.

Both that order and today's order to narrow the distance between desks came after consultation with the state Department of Health, Inslee said.

"These are decisions we made for the benefit of our children. And I'm very confident that they are the right ones," the governor said.

The social distance rule change comes as many districts across the state are negotiating school reopening agreements with their unions.

In Seattle, school staff are voting this week on a tentative agreement to reopen buildings to preschool, elementary and some older special education students over the next week and a half. That agreement would require six feet between students, including in the classroom.

The rule change may come up for discussion during the current negotiations between the district and union: reopening to middle and high school students.

This story is developing and will be updated.