OLYMPIA, WA — Washington is shifting its approach to in-person learning, now recommending most districts begin the process of returning younger students to the classroom once appropriate safety measures are in place.
Gov. Jay Inslee and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal unveiled new guidelines Wednesday, citing multiple studies that found relatively low impacts on coronavirus transmission rates if schools maintained proper precautions.
As of Wednesday, Inslee said just 15 percent of the state’s 1.2 million students were attending any in-person classes due to pandemic closures.
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“This is good and encouraging news, both for our educators who want to get back to work in a safe and healthy environment, and for parents whose lives have certainly been disrupted, and for students whose lives, educationally, have been significantly diminished in many cases,” Inslee said. “Many people’s lives revolve around a regular school schedule. Apart from academics, we know that schools provide social supports that advance healthy childhood development.”
The governor said the data available today is greater than what was known just a few months ago and more conclusively shows that classroom learning can safely resume under the right approach.
One of the metrics used to inform the state’s decision is recent data from the Institute for Disease Modeling, which found limited COVID-19 transmission in schools when adequate countermeasures are in place, including mandatory face coverings, physical distancing, increased cleaning and better ventilation.
The guidance does not require schools to go back to class, a decision that is ultimately made by individual school boards. A new proclamation from the governor will reinforce legal mandates to require specific safety measures in districts that choose to reopen.
The state Department of Health’s new guidelines plot recommended reopening phases sorted by low, moderate and high COVID-19 activity in the community. Even those in the highest bracket are encouraged to prioritize plans to bring younger students, and those with the greatest need, back to class in small groups soon.
A new “toolkit” document provided to local districts suggests schools expand access to in-person learning when case counts and hospitalizations are flat or decreasing, and the school can ensure proper safety measures. When trends are increasing, the state recommends pausing progression but not reducing in-person learning unless necessary.
“Most students do best in the traditional in-person school environment with their peers and educators,” Reykdal said. “With the science and data showing us we can do this safely, I am confident we should begin moving more of our students back to the physical classroom.”
According to the governor’s office, each school will need a safety committee responsible for developing and implementing a COVID-19 safety plan, designating a supervisor, training all staff and distributing the proper personal protective equipment.
To aid workplace efforts, the Department of Labor & Industries will provide a liaison to handle school safety concerns and ensure proper protocols are followed. Inslee also announced $3 million in CARES Act funding to support districts in implementing their safety plans.
The state also plans to build on testing pilot programs in a dozen districts, aiming to expand same-day access for schools across the state as more in-person learning begins.
This article originally appeared on the Seattle Patch