After a bill to reopen public schools died in the state Senate this month, Republicans are following up with another attempt.
Instead of toning down the legislation, Senate Bill 5464, introduced on Tuesday, takes an even more aggressive approach.
Rather than creating metrics under which schools would have to reopen, the new proposal would effectively force schools to bring kids back into classrooms unless the governor, secretary of health or a local health officer explicitly prohibited in-person learning. Without those orders, fully virtual instruction would be allowed for no more than 10 consecutive days.
The state has not ordered school shutdowns since last school year, despite cases soaring this fall.
Does the new bill take away local control?
“I’m not sure I’d characterize it as overriding local control. Maybe you could put it that way,” Senate Majority Leader John Braun told reporters Thursday. “I’d just say we have a constitutional requirement to provide instruction.”
Centralia Superintendent Dr. Lisa Grant had concerns about Braun’s first bill to reopen schools, which would have forced in-person learning if communities met certain COVID-19 metrics. That measure was co-sponsored by one moderate Democrat, Sen. Mark Mullet, of Issaquah, who has not signed onto SB 5464. The new bill, Grant says, takes away local control even more so than the first.
“They kind of reversed it. You have to be open unless someone tells you you can’t. Now there are no metrics,” she said.
Grant does, however, credit Braun’s first reopening bill with pushing forward the conversation on schools, and perhaps convincing state officials — including Gov. Jay Inslee — to push harder to get kids back in classrooms. This month, Inslee expressed that he wants to “incentivize” schools to once again offer in-person learning, although the state continues to take a generally hands-off approach.
Centralia has opened up slower than other local schools, but has enjoyed success in bringing back elementary school students last fall. Middle and high school students are set to return in cohorts on March 15, the start of the next term.
Extra sanitation measures, plus trying to meet the needs of kids experiencing learning, social and emotional issues from the pandemic, have proven expensive, Grant said. And funding linked to the new school reopening bill could help.
Republican lawmakers were able to skirt the Legislature’s Feb. 15 cutoff, which killed their previous school reopening bill, by connecting their new proposal to the state budget.
“We recognize that because of the pandemic, there are added costs to operating our schools safely, and our Senate Republican budget proposal addresses that,” Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said in a press release. “We also know from the past year that being in classrooms is best for our children. Under this new bill, very few people would be able to stand in the way of that.”
Unlike with his previous bill, Braun hasn’t yet consulted with Lewis County’s schools workgroup, composed of superintendents, pediatricians and health experts, according to Grant. And it’s clear that his focus is instead on schools outside District 20, where schools have been slower to reopen.
The Centralia Republican has commended Lewis County’s schools while castigating school districts in places such as Seattle, where instruction is still largely virtual. Those districts, unlike many in Lewis County, also complied with state guidance earlier this year by keeping students at home.
In a Thursday press conference with other Republican lawmakers, Braun again lambasted the state’s teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association, for stunting the reopening process.
“Let’s just be candid on this. Everybody, virtually every parent in the state, every teacher in the state, frankly, most administrators think in-person school is the right answer, and are pushing hard to get there. The governor has come around to this view. Really the only folks who are opposed to this now is the teachers’ union,” he said. “They certainly are a key stakeholder, but they are basically … the only group of folks who are stopping our children from having proper education in many parts of the state.”
Top Republicans have praised Gov. Jay Inslee for urging more schools to reopen, although their philosophies differ vastly from the governor, whose reopening plan continues to hold businesses under relatively tight restrictions, partially due to more dangerous variants of COVID-19 spreading in the state.
Despite those concerns, Braun said Thursday he’s “very comfortable, knowing what we know today, opening up everything.”
In presenting on the state Department of Health’s most recent report modeling COVID-19 transmission in schools, Dr. Daniel J. Klein said this week that infection can be significantly reduced in classrooms through safety measures such as masks, hand hygiene, distancing and ventilation. So far, he said, outbreaks have been limited.
But the report also found that high schools are more likely to have large outbreaks, “vaccinating all staff will not prevent COVID from entering schools” and “few tools are available” to reduce introduction of COVID-19 into classrooms besides high-frequency diagnostic screenings of students and staff.
And with in-school transmission mirroring community spread, Klein and other state health officials indicated that COVID-19 variants may be a wild card in reopening.