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caption: The empty hallway at Garfield High School in Seattle's Central District.
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The empty hallway at Garfield High School in Seattle's Central District.

Teachers balk at returning to school as Covid cases surge in Seattle area

As new Covid-19 restrictions go into effect this week across the state, K-12 schools are allowed to remain open. KUOW Education Reporter Ann Dornfeld explains why.

Mostly remote, with some in-person learning

State health department officials say [in-person learning] is going pretty well in most places. They say schools that have been open seem to be doing a decent job of mitigating the risk factors.

They mainly have students in school part-time, in masks, with lots of social distancing and monitoring for symptoms.

As a result, there have only been a few dozen outbreaks reported in K-12 schools since the start of the pandemic. There have been a lot more individual cases in schools, but outbreaks are really what schools are trying to avoid.

An outbreak is two or more cases where the spread from one person to the other likely occurred at school. Given that, the state did not change its recommendations for schools, even as the governor limited a lot of other in-person events and businesses this week.

How could the virus spread in schools?

Looking at research from around the world, it appears that younger children are not as good at spreading the virus as older kids and adults. Where outbreaks have occurred in schools and childcare in Washington state, it has been disproportionately among staff members.

Some of the outbreaks have even happened in schools that are closed to students, but where staff are working on-site. Say, they're delivering online lessons from their classrooms.

There was a recent study out from the Institute for Disease Modeling, a Seattle-based organization, that looked at how to mitigate school outbreaks in King County. They found that the precautions that schools are already required to take by the state health department should be sufficient to prevent outbreaks in schools, even without the use of diagnostic testing that's used in, say, a lot of colleges where students have to get regular Covid tests to prevent outbreaks.

They found that what's already in place is enough, as long as schools have the resources to do it, and as long as community transmission rates are low, which admittedly they're not right now in King County, Washington state, or the rest of the country.

A battle over returning to the classroom

In the Monroe School District, in Snohomish County, the district has been holding kindergarten and some special education services in person already.

This week, the district planned to add first grade, but the teachers union said that now is not the time. There have been concerns in that district about how transparent the district is being with staff and families about the classes that have been quarantined due to, say, an individual Covid case.

The union says the district has not been delivering personal protective equipment to staff uniformly as it has promised to do. And, the union points to the agreement made between the district and the union signed over the summer that said Covid related school decisions would be made in partnership with the union.

The district yesterday told first grade teachers that they could face termination if they didn't report to their schools starting today. Some teachers stayed home anyway, and some went to work. But the whole situation has made some parents uncomfortable and they're keeping their first graders home until the district and union resolve their differences.

(Update 6 p.m. 11/18/2020: Monroe has backed down and first-grade teachers will not have to report back to their buildings.)

The district says it's working with the union and that its plans have been approved by this Snohomish County Health Department. They say they're taking the necessary safety protocols, but it's to be determined what happens. The union has said they would like to work closely with the district and maybe start first grade later this month.

The [Seattle Public Schools] district is offering some in-person special education services, but only to a very small number of students. For all the other students in the district, school is not scheduled to be back in-person until at least the end of first semester. That would be in January, but it's not clear even if school will resume in-person at all this school year.

This interview has been edited for clarity.