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caption: Second grade student Camille, center, opens a container of school supplies that each student will keep in their cubby, while wearing a t-shirt that reads ' Somerset Strong No Matter the Distance,' in Ms. Gagne's classroom on Thursday, January 21, 2021, as second-grade students returned to in-person learning at Somerset Elementary School in Bellevue.
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Second grade student Camille, center, opens a container of school supplies that each student will keep in their cubby, while wearing a t-shirt that reads ' Somerset Strong No Matter the Distance,' in Ms. Gagne's classroom on Thursday, January 21, 2021, as second-grade students returned to in-person learning at Somerset Elementary School in Bellevue.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

'Now is the time.' Gov. Inslee orders Washington schools to reopen by April 19

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced Friday that he will soon issue an emergency proclamation ordering school districts to offer part-time, in-person instruction for students in grades K-6 by April 5 and grades 7-12 by April 19.

"After one year of closure of our schools, the time has come for every child in the state of Washington to have access to on-site instruction," the governor said at a news conference.

The proclamation will mandate that by April 19, districts must offer K-12 students at least 30 percent of their instructional time in-person, including at least two partial days on-campus. Remote instruction would be offered the rest of the time, as well as offered full-time for students whose families prefer to remain at home.

Although remote education has worked well for some students, many others are suffering, he said.

“I have reviewed the medical evidence regarding the condition of our students, both from a Covid transmission standpoint and from a mental health standpoint," Inslee said. "In the recent days there is now, unfortunately, undeniably, a mental healthcare crisis in our state regarding our youth."

The announcement comes one year to the day after Seattle Public Schools — the state’s largest district — closed due to the coronavirus. Shortly thereafter, the governor closed the rest of the state's public and private schools.

Inslee is the latest governor to demand that public schools reopen at least part time — in recent days, the governors of Oregon and Arizona signed executive orders requiring that districts invite students back.

Although Inslee had long held that he did not have the authority to order schools to reopen, and that each district school board had to make its own reopening decision, spokesperson Tara Lee said the yearlong school closure for many students has created “a new crisis” that the governor can address through this emergency proclamation.

In Seattle, where only around 150 students are currently being served in-person, "They are going to have to pick up the pace, there's no question about that," Inslee said.

Statewide, 85 percent of districts have reopened at least part-time to some students, although in some districts only younger children and special education students are learning in-person.

Many are offering a hybrid model of both remote and in-person instruction, with only half of each grade in buildings at a time, often two days a week, in order to keep class sizes small and students at desks six feet apart from each other. That hybrid model is what the governor said is the minimum for districts starting to reopen. "We know that it can work," Inslee said, because it is in place all over the state, in districts large and small, urban and rural.

The state's largest teachers union, Washington Education Association, challenged the wisdom of the governor's action. "The governor’s announcement assumes that districts have the ability to provide safe teaching and learning," WEA said in a written statement.

"Some districts are not yet prepared to safely welcome students back to buildings. Local unions are actively bargaining with districts to ensure the return to buildings is as safe as possible. Shortcutting those safety processes is not in the best interest of our students, staff, or communities," the union said.

Numerous studies have shown that in-person school can operate relatively safely during the pandemic if the proper precautions are in place — like social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing and keeping students in isolated cohorts .

Still, many school staff members and parents have expressed doubts about their own districts’ actual protocols and preparation, including the type of masks available to staff and classroom airflow concerns.

Read: One year since Seattle schools closed, here are some hurdles to reopening

That conflict has delayed reopening in Seattle Public Schools, where the district and Seattle Education Association have been locked in negotiations about how and when to restart in-person classes since January.

After several promises by the district to begin reopening were delayed, earlier this week the district and union said the first in-person classes would begin March 29 for preschool and some students who receive intensive special education services.

Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson turned down an interview request, but released a written statement that said the district is in active negotiations with the union "to bring back our students, beginning with our most vulnerable, for in-person instruction: students receiving special education services and preschool students."

The district did not discuss what the governor’s proclamation would mean for Seattle students. "We will need time to analyze the details of the proclamation and determine the impacts for our students, families, and staff," the district said.

Districts with questions about how to make in-person school work during the pandemic can turn to the many districts around the state where it is already in practice, the governor said today. "There are over 1,400 schools that are doing this safely today with minimal in-school transmission," he said.

The announcement did not surprise Seattle School Board President Chandra Hampson, "But I was frustrated," she said. Hampson called the district's reopening planning "a painfully slow process," but said that the district finally turned the corner this week in its negotiations with the union and is very close to reaching a tentative agreement "that centers and prioritizes our highest-need students coming back first into our buildings," Hampson said.

Along with students with disabilities and preschoolers, Hampson said, the board wanted the district to focus on serving English language learners, foster children, students experiencing homelessness, low-income schools, and middle and high school students who are struggling academically or entirely disengaged.

"I firmly, philosophically, morally, ethically and legally believe that that is the right approach to returning in-person," Hampson said, "and to have that up-ended, and now have to look at planning for something completely different, that actually reduces, most likely, the ability of our staff to focus on students that have had the highest needs throughout this pandemic. It makes me really sad."

Hampson said that the governor's mandate calls into question whether the district will be able to start reopening to preschool and some special education students March 29, as planned this week with the union.

"Now we're put in this place of having to bargain all instructional models, at every grade level, all at once, and for all of those different populations. That's a huge lift," Hampson said.

Reactions from parents have been mixed, said Manuela Slye, president of Seattle Council PTSA. "Some people are just ready - beyond ready - to go back to school," Slye said.

Other families have wanted to make sure that there will still be a remote option because they don't feel safe in buildings due to the pandemic, she said.

Slye echoed the governor's focus on mental health supports in schools, and said that she hopes that the pandemic ushers in a new era of holistic care for children's needs. "We need counselors, and that's not something new. That's something that we have been advocating for a long time. So I'm hoping that with this idea of going back to schools, we also go back to having counselors in every school," Slye said.

Janis White, president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA, welcomed the move to a hybrid model for all students, expanding beyond the initial priority for students with disabilities.

Because districts are legally required to serve students with disabilities alongside their general education peers, White said, she has been uncomfortable with the lack of a coherent plan by the district to invite all students back for in-person learning so that students aren't always segregated by ability.

"For families whose kids have been struggling, and have made little to no progress during remote learning, and who are comfortable with the risks involved in sending their kids back to school buildings, I think that this is good news, because I hope it's going to force our district to comply," White said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said that the costs associated with in-person learning will be mitigated by the latest round of federal CARES Act funding. But he said that Seattle's share, about $37 million in the latest round, is being withheld until the district comes up with an adequate reopening plan.

"Seattle is one of the districts who doesn't have a green light yet," Reykdal said. "We want to continue to work with them."

The governor and schools chief stressed that children's mental health needs to be a top priority for schools and the state at large.

The governor's emergency proclamation will also direct the state Department of Health and state Health Care Authority "to immediately begin work on recommendations that would detail how to support the behavioral health needs of our children," Inslee said.

The governor said that his budget proposal includes significant investments in youth mental health care, and that the $2.6 billion in federal pandemic relief he estimates the state's schools will receive in total should also pay for substantial increases in the number of school counselors, nurses and other mental health services that are currently minimally-funded by the state.

First, however, it is time for students to get back to the classroom, the governor said - to their teachers, and friends, and school buildings.

"The lasting effect of this mental health crisis will be felt for some time. A return to school is not a total catch-all to these challenges. But this return is unequivocally part of the solution for so many younger Washingtonians," Inslee said.

Correction 3/13/21 3:55 pm - An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who first ordered Seattle Public Schools closed in 2020.