Gov. Jay Inslee visited a Puyallup School District elementary school Thursday and said he has no doubts about the health safety of children returning to the classroom.
"There is no debate about this," Inslee told reporters. "There is no reason on this green earth today that we are not giving our kids what they deserve, which is a first-class education in person. I feel very confident on this."
He along with educators and Pierce County elected officials toured classrooms at Firgrove Elementary School in South Hill. Inslee is pushing for all students across Washington to be phased back to in-person learning.
"I know it can be done safely because it is being done safely," the governor said.
Inslee said he is confident the state will provide funding to school districts for contact tracing and testing in the coming weeks.
"Financing this is not an issue here — it's the will to do it," he said to Puyallup School District staff.
The Puyallup district brought back junior high students this week after a month of elementary school and special education students in the classroom. Since the return on Jan. 12, the district has reported 24 cases of COVID-19 across the district, which is the state's eighth largest.
As of Feb. 18, 61 percent of the district's 21,682 students has been brought back, according to district data. About 88 percent of staff are working on campuses.
Elementary school students returned to in-person instruction in mid-January. K-1 starts five days a week on Feb. 22 and second to sixth grades are at two days a week. Special education students will return to a full school week on Feb. 22.
Junior high school students, or grades seventh, eighth, and ninth, began on Feb. 16 with two half-days of in-person learning every other week.
Secondary students have been broken into four "cohorts," because there are too many students for two groups, district spokesperson Sarah Gillispie said.
"Puyallup is unique in that our secondary teachers teach both distance learning students and on-site (hybrid students). Not simultaneously. So in order for them to do both, they need to teach one group in the morning and one group in the afternoon," Gillispie said in an email. "This also ensures no teacher changes for students."
High school students, grades 10-12, are scheduled to return on March 2 in four cohorts as well.
"The only thing that would keep us from that March 2 date would be if case rates increased," Gillispie said, adding that advice from the health department could also impede the return date.
Pierce County's rural district rapid testing program was a vote of confidence for district's to bring students back with COVID-19 precautions, Puyallup district superintendent John Polm said.
A report about the three-week program showed .02 percent of the nearly 10,000 administered tests registered positive for COVID-19. Staff and students at White River, Peninsula and Eatonville school districts were tested daily. The $7.8 million program was funded by Pierce County's federal allotment of CARES Act dollars.
Staff told Inslee about some of the measures taken to bring students back during the coronavirus pandemic. Students are required to wear masks except during recess, if requested, and lunch. Teachers and students wipe down desks and surfaces between activities and six feet of social distancing is required. At recess, students remain in "cohorts" of 15 or fewer, Polm said.
There are temperature checks for students, and daily attestation forms for every person entering a district building.
When there is a positive COVID-19 case, the district's health services coordinator, Emily Powell, said staff work with the health department to provide the names and information of those who have been potentially exposed.
Voluntary rapid testing is available to staff and high school athletes, Gillispie said.
Puyallup assistant superintendent Vince Pecchia said staff is looking at a summer school program to help those who have fallen behind.
"It's for folks we've identified who need the extra help," he told Inslee.
Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier said all the school districts in the county are "phasing in" in-person learning.
Inslee said the push for in-person learning is not contingent on receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. He said the older population needs to be vaccinated before teachers are.
"Our own experience has demonstrated that that is not necessary," he told reporters. "We can open schools today without their prerequisite of vaccinating our teachers."
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