OLYMPIA — Washington is expanding its COVID-19 testing program to include about 50 new school districts, an effort to get kids back in schools quickly, Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Tuesday.
School districts can now take part in a voluntary testing program in partnership with the Department of Health, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the nonprofit Health Commons. Eleven districts have already piloted the program on school grounds, according to the Department of Health. At least 48 more districts will start the program this month, although no list of those participating as been released yet.
"We are opening our schools for in-person instruction," Inslee said. "We know that this can be done safely."
Currently, 200,000 students at 175 schools in the state are receiving some kind of in-person instruction, Inslee said, and it's increasing every day. He said there is "resounding confidence" that in-person is the best way to educate students, while at the same time the state is still giving parents an option to provide virtual learning.
Decisions about when to reopen schools are still up to each district, but health officials hope a testing program can help districts feel more confident bringing back students.
Each district that joins the program will have access to numerous different testing strategies and a planner from Health Commons, which will help them determine the best strategy for them. The first tier of testing would be people with symptoms, but a district can also choose to include asymptomatic people .
"It's important to know there is no one correct way to do COVID testing in schools," said Sarah Sutton, of Health Commons.
While only about 60 districts are currently volunteering to take part in the program, Inslee said he was confident the state could support more schools He pointed to the state's COVID relief package and anticipated federal funds as ways school districts can fund this testing.
"If there are additional districts out there, we stand ready to support them as well," said Lacy Fehrenbach, of the Department of Health.
In a statement after Inslee's announcement, the Washington Education Association said it would like to see this testing funded for all schools operating with in-person learning, as testing, along with social distancing and adequate personal protective equipment, is a fundamental piece for safe operation of schools.
"Yet, these are the same issues that many school districts are struggling to provide," the statement reads. "As Gov. Inslee noted, it is educators who are the ones fighting to make sure these safety precautions are in place."
Inslee thanked educators for their leadership the past few months, adding everyone should now have a "sense of urgency" to get kids back in school.
Everyone has concerns about in-person learning, Inslee said, but the state now has more knowledge about the virus and how it spreads in schools. In schools that have reopened, social distancing and masks have worked.
"We know that there's nothing with zero risk in this world," Inslee said. "But we know that we now have the necessary tools to mitigate that risk."
Current state guidance allows districts to determine if they want to return to in-person learning. Many schools in Spokane County are bringing back their secondary students now. Spokane Public Schools will bring back 5th- and 6th grade students this week while secondary students will start March 1.
As schools begin to reopen, the question of when teachers can get vaccinated remains. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidance do not call for teachers to be vaccinated before returning to in-person learning. However, many teachers and legislators have pushed Inslee to move teachers up in line.
Some teachers are being vaccinated today, if they're 65 and over , Inslee said Tuesday. Younger teachers will be included in the next tier of those eligible, which also includes essential workers such as food processing workers and child care workers. However, Inslee didn't say who in that group would be prioritized.
The mass vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite to going back to school, Inslee said.
A statement from the Washington Education Association said educators working in person should have access to the vaccine, as other states have given them.
"These basic precautions will ensure the safe operations of our schools for students, staff, families and our communities, which is ultimately what all want," the statement reads.