Officials in Gov. Jay Inslee's office and the state's health department said Friday they were reviewing new federal guidelines allowing schools to place students 3 feet apart in elementary school classrooms but are not planning an immediate change to state guidelines.
If Washington does make a change, schools may have more leeway to open up to more in-person learning.
Federal health officials had previously recommended 6 feet of physical distance.
The state Department of Health (DOH) has its own guidance that requires students and staff to stay 6 feet apart in classrooms and hallways, in addition to a host of other safety measures such as universal masking.
The guidance has kept many schools from operating at full capacity: Many reopened schools are teaching students using a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning because some classrooms aren't large enough to accommodate a full class with distancing in place.
State officials haven't yet said whether they plan to adopt the new federal guidelines, released Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC cited emerging evidence from Massachusetts, Missouri and Utah that suggests 3 feet is a safe distance in school settings, which are more easily controlled than other places in communities.
"DOH will be working with partners at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, local health jurisdictions, and the Governor's office to review the updated CDC guidance and continue our efforts to get students back safely to in-person instruction," DOH officials said in an email Friday.
But the state's largest educators union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), urged government officials to proceed with caution.
"The CDC's new guidance recommending 3 feet of distancing instead of 6 for elementary schools raises justifiable questions about the science behind the change," the union's spokesperson said in an email. "We are all too aware that many interests have been pushing for faster school reopening; it's critical that the CDC transparently show this is rigorously science-based."
Washington elementary schools are required to provide at least some in-person instruction by April 5 under an emergency proclamation Gov. Jay Inslee signed on March 15. Under the directive, middle and high schools must have an in-person option by April 19.
The new federal guidelines ease the 6-foot rule for middle and high schools when transmission in the community is low; 6 feet of distance is recommended, though, when transmission is high and students can't be taught in small groups.
Many school districts and teachers unions wrote the 6-foot distancing rule into their reopening agreements, including Seattle Public Schools and the Highline school district. The state education department, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), told school districts on Friday that distancing guidelines hadn't changed.
"We just received guidance from OSPI that there is no change to the 6-foot distancing protocol," Highline spokesperson Catherine Carbone Rogers wrote in an email early Friday afternoon. "Our hybrid model is built on six-foot distancing, and we won't change that."
Seattle's tentative agreement to bring back elementary school students has several references to 6-foot distancing requirements. The teachers union and School Board will vote on that contract next week, at which point it will become a legally binding document.
"We are taking this new information into consideration and discussing possible impacts as we continue to prioritize the health and safety of our students and staff," Seattle school district spokesperson Tim Robinson said in an email. "We will continue to prioritize Washington State Department of Health guidelines. As we make operational adjustments, we will communicate them to students, families and staff."