If public school districts won't follow Washington's Department of Health guidelines for in-person instruction, state lawmakers should make the decision for them.
Senate Bill 5037 seeks to do just that.
The bill, sponsored by Senate Republican Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, would require public school districts to reopen classrooms for all K-12 students when the surrounding county reports fewer than 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days or the rate of positive tests is less than 5%. The bill would require in-person learning for K-8th grade in counties with fewer than 350 cases per 100,000, as the DOH recommends in its Dec. 16 revised guidance. It would allow for a mix of distance and in-person instruction. Families could still choose full-time distance learning under the proposal, which would take effect immediately after enactment.
The bill still needs some revision. For example, the thresholds should be flexible, changing if new evidence leads to different public-health recommendations. It should include sanctions for schools that don't comply, or incentives for their doing so. Certainly, schools must take precautions to protect staff and students. Teachers and other staff should be fast-tracked for vaccination, as four professional education associations, representing school superintendents, principals, school boards and school business officers, have asked the governor to do. The bill's sponsors should further revise their proposal to address these and other reasonable concerns.
Critics say the bill is heavy handed. In truth, it seeks to correct a power imbalance that gives overly cautious educators who are ignoring science-based public health guidelines outsized influence in district-reopening decisions. Bellevue School District's rocky expansion of in-person learning last week offers a good, if extreme, example. When the district's second graders returned to classrooms last Thursday, many teachers didn't. Instead, their union, the Bellevue Education Association, forced district leaders back to the bargaining table, leading to the last-minute cancellation of school on Monday. They reached agreement on Tuesday.
But parents and students are also left out of decision-making in districts where the power struggle is not so visible. In public testimony last week, Jennifer Spall likened districts' shifting deliberations to Lucy teasing Charlie Brown with a football. She is a member of Washington Alliance 4 Kids, a statewide parents' group advocating for school reopening.
Districts' dithering shortchanges students and burdens families already stressed by the pandemic. It is particularly harmful to students with disabilities, English language learners, students of color and those living in poverty.
This not a partisan issue. Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, has signed on to SB 5037.
President Joe Biden, another Democrat, signed an executive order prioritizing a quick, safe return to classrooms across the country. Research from MIT, Brown University and Harvard, as well as Washington's own experience, shows safety measures in school dramatically lower the risk of transmission, as Gov. Jay Inslee noted in announcing the relaxed guidance for in-person instruction last month. There is no evidence that schools operating safely are significant sources of spread. But the potential harms and inequities of extended remote learning are well documented.
For these reasons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools should be the last settings to close and the first to reopen with proper safety protocols. District leaders have had months to think through plans to do so. Still, before winter break, only 15% of the state's public school students were learning in person, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The governor's and health officials' recommendations won't be enough to get kids back in class in many districts. Lawmakers should act.
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