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caption: Second-grade student Nelly, second from left, watches a video about social distancing and other safety precautions along with her classmates 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 Nelly, second from left, watches a video about social distancing and other safety precautions along with her classmates 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

Washington K-12 schools can 'safely' reopen for in-person learning, Inslee says

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday announced that K-12 schools across the state can reopen for in-classroom instruction.

The push to reopen schools comes amid fierce debates about the risks of sending kids and educators back into school buildings during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Inslee said that Tuesday's announcement is intended to "incentivize" Washington's school districts to return to in-person learning. It is not a requirement, however. Local school districts and their teachers unions have the final say.

Calling the announcement "good news for all of us," Inslee cited guidance published last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the impetus behind his recommendation to reopen schools.

“Our educators have been doing a superhuman job remotely, trying to get the attention of second graders, trying to keep third graders on task as creatively as possible," Inslee said during a press conference. "But all over the state of Washington, we are now returning to the way we know best, which is in-person instruction.”

Most school districts have remained closed to the majority of their students throughout the pandemic. Many, however, have already begun reopening classrooms to student groups considered particularly vulnerable to falling through the remote learning cracks, including students receiving special education services and kids in younger grades. Inslee cited approximately 200,000 K-12 students currently receiving in-person instruction.

The CDC guidance in question points to evidence suggesting "that many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open." The recommendations also suggest using layered mitigation strategies, including proper mask use, physical distancing, sanitizing facilities, handwashing, and contact tracing.

As widespread school reopening gets underway, Inslee said the state Department of Health will partner with school districts and local health jurisdictions across Washington to expand diagnostic testing access. The testing program has already been piloted in 11 school districts and will be extended to nearly 50 more that have recently signed up.

"We have demonstrated that this can be done throughout the state of Washington — it is being done throughout the state of Washington safely," he said.

But conversations surrounding the universal reopening of K-12 schools have been contentious in many places, as school districts and teachers unions quarrel over whether and how to return to the classroom.

RELATED: Return to school delayed for Seattle students pre-K to grade 1

Teachers are not collectively eligible for vaccinations, unless they happen to fall within another group to which Covid-19 vaccines are available, such as people 65-plus or 50-plus and living in an intergenerational household.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.