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caption: Washington state Governor Jay Inslee presents new school reopening guidelines at a press conference on December 16, 2020.
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Washington state Governor Jay Inslee presents new school reopening guidelines at a press conference on December 16, 2020.
Credit: TVW

K-12 students can return to schools earlier than previously advised, say WA health officials

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday said recent, more lenient public health guidelines on in-person schooling could allow students to return to physical classrooms sooner than previously recommended — and without major outbreak risk.

Inslee said the new guidelines from the state health department draw from scientific studies of open schools around the world, as well as promising data from in-person classes in Washington.

According to the new Department of Health guidelines, districts that take the proper health and safety precautions should reintroduce students to classrooms once community transmission rates are "moderate," at or below 350 cases per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks.

“This is based on our new data that has given us high confidence and shows that schools can successfully limit the transmission of Covid-19, when they have strong safe health and safety protocols in place in their schools," Inslee said during a Wednesday press conference.

While King County was within the low-to-moderate transmission threshold for most of the year, it has been above 350, in the "high" transmission range, for the past month. As of Wednesday, the county was at 409 cases per 100,000 residents.

Larry Delaney, president of Washington Education Association, said the union doesn't have a stance on the appropriate community transmission rate to trigger a return to in-person learning.

"We don't know what the safe number is. But we do believe that before there's any expansion of in-person teaching and learning, that you have to have the virus under control," Delaney said.

"We certainly don't believe that — just looking at all of the numbers right now — the virus is is under control."

Delaney also questions how many schools will have access to the personal protective equipment, ventilation, sanitation, and screening tools needed to safely teach in-person.

"Quite frankly, in districts out there where there's not that trust, there's concern that there's going to be a push to bring back students and educators before those requirements are actually in place," he said.

Inslee said that only 15% of Washington's K-12 students attend any school in-person at the moment.

In Seattle, where classes have been entirely virtual since March — apart from those supporting a few dozen special education students in-person —the school board is scheduled to vote this week on a plan to bring pre-Kindergarten through 1st grade students back to buildings as early as March.