Both state and federal officials are in agreement that K-12 schools in Washington can return to in-person instruction safely by following protocols intended to stop the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Jay Inslee says.
During a Feb. 16 press conference, the governor laid out the case for school districts statewide to begin or expand their efforts in getting students back into classrooms, citing recently-updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alongside the efforts of Washington districts that have already begun transitioning their school populations back to brick and mortar.
Inslee said the CDC guidance “broadly aligns” with Washington state’s own guidance, where if safety protocols are put into place, reopening schools can be safe.
“I think that the CDC, in effect, has confirmed what our educators have discovered, which is that this can be done safely” Inslee remarked. He said that educators returning to the classroom in the wake of a pandemic were exploring uncharted territory in a vein similar to famed explorers Lewis and Clark, finding solutions and changes in procedure to allow for safe in-person instruction.
“They are doing this safely, they are doing this efficiently, and they are doing this with a resounding confidence that this is the best way to educate our children,” Inslee said, adding those districts were also offering an option for remote learning for families uncomfortable with the return to buildings for instruction.
Inslee acknowledged that districts provided more than just instruction for students through avenues such as nutrition, adding that rural communities often struggled with remote access for virtual classes. He spoke of a desire to see districts statewide return to education “the way we know best, which is in-person instruction”
“If these students can safely return to class — and the science says unequivocally that they can — we should, I believe, feel a sense of urgency to answer this paramount duty to our students,” Inslee said.
With the new CDC guidance and national research, Inslee said that the success he has seen in Washington state districts that had reopened was not an aberration, noting that some 200,000 students who have been able to return to some form of in-person instruction statewide.
“This is the experience across the United States, where multiple scientific journals have confirmed that this is a relatively low-risk environment, and these risks can be mitigated by the safety protocols that we have embraced,” Inslee said, pointing to a study out of Wisconsin that suggested the in-school environment might be safer than out of school with regard to COVID-19 transmission.
Though he acknowledged a desire to see all essential workers in the state vaccinated from COVID-19, the governor added that the CDC “made very clear that mass vaccination of our teachers is not a prerequisite to going back to school.”
In an effort to build confidence in districts that in-person instruction is feasible, Inslee announced the expansion of a COVID-19 testing program for schools. The governor said the program, developed by the Washington State Department of Health, was initially piloted in 13 school districts last year. He announced about 50 districts would now be participating in the program beginning in February.
Inslee said participating districts would receive support from the Health Commons Project, a nonprofit organization. Sarah Sutton, project manager for the project, said the organization has been working with Washington communities since the beginning of the pandemic for “low-barrier, evidence-based” testing services.
Schools that volunteer to be a part of the program will be assigned their own testing strategist by the program, Sutton said, that will help to design a program tailored to each district.
“It’s important to know that there is no one correct way to do COVID testing in schools,” Sutton noted. She said that although at first the implementation of a testing program may seem overwhelming for districts, “it is doable.”
Inslee said the financial impacts of implementation of the testing programs “should not be a problem” for districts due to federal and state funding avenues. He said the testing program was not necessary for districts to return to in-person instruction, “but it’s a way to help build confidence where educators (and) parents would like to have those confidence measures in place.”