OLYMPIA, Wash. - Gov. Jay Inslee will sign an emergency proclamation next week requiring all school districts in Washington to offer both remote and in-person learning.
Inslee, speaking at a news conference Friday, set the following deadlines for districts:
- By April 5, all K-6 students must have the option to return to the classroom for a hybrid learning model.
- By April 19, all other K-12 students must have the same option to return part-time.
- By April 19, all school districts must offer at least 30 percent of its weekly instructional hours on-campus for all students - a minimum of 2 days a week.
The order will also require districts to keep working toward more than 30 percent of teaching time in the classroom as soon as possible.
Students will still have the option to continue learning remotely full-time.
"There is now, unfortunately, undeniably, a mental health crisis for kids in our state," Inslee said. "Now is the time."
Inslee said the Covid relief bill President Biden signed Thursday will provide $2.6 billion to Washington schools. The governor will encourage state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal's office to use some of those funds for mental health aid, including school counselors, nurses and other support workers.
Reykdal said about 50 percent of elementary school students, 40 percent of middle-schoolers and 30 percent of high school students are back in the classroom part-time. More than 200 school districts in Washington have reopened for hybrid learning.
Attendance is down for every grade level, but more so for middle and high school students.
The impacts of remote learning have been especially hard on children of color and indigenous communities, Reykdal said.
"What we see in our education system is the effects of isolation and the trauma of what's happened," Reykdal said. "We must do better ... academically, students are struggling as well."
The Washington Education Association released the following statement:
"WEA is dedicated to protecting the safety of our students and staff. We all agree that a safe return to school buildings for those who choose is best for our students. Most districts in Washington state are already providing in-person instruction in some form, and some have been in-person for months. Only a few districts which have yet to fully implement health and safety standards are still remote.
"The governor’s announcement assumes that districts have the ability to provide safe teaching and learning. Some districts are not yet prepared to safely welcome students back to buildings. Local unions are actively bargaining with districts to ensure the return to buildings is as safe as possible. Shortcutting those safety processes is not in the best interest of our students, staff, or communities. School districts must partner with local unions and community groups-- including communities of color-- to ensure safety measures and robust mental health supports are in place before returning to buildings and for families that opt for remote learning."
Inslee's announcement comes exactly one year after he first ordered all schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties to close. A day later, he closed schools statewide.
- March 12, 2020: Inslee first ordered all schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish schools closed at the onset of the pandemic.
- March 13, 2020: Inslee announced statewide school closures and a ban on large gatherings.
- April 6, 2020: Inslee and Reykdal said schools would remain physically closed through the end of the school year.
- Aug. 5, 2020: Inslee said schools in the majority of Washington’s counties should strongly consider online-only learning for students due to COVID-19 and cancel sports and all other in-person extracurricular activities.
- Dec. 16, 2020: Inslee loosened guidelines for schools reopening
- Feb. 3, 2021: CDC director said safe return to school can happen without teacher vaccinations
- Feb. 16, 2021: Inslee said public schools in the state can open up for more in-person learning as COVID-19 restrictions are eased.
- March 2, 2021: Inslee signed a measure that would waive some graduation requirements for students during a state of emergency, like the current coronavirus pandemic.
- March 2, 2021: Washington educators, child care workers now eligible for COVID-19 vaccine
'Roadmap to Recovery'
Just a day earlier, Inslee announced that all counties will move into Phase 3 of a COVID-19 economic reopening plan on March 22.
Under Phase 3, all indoor spaces — including indoor dining at restaurants, indoor fitness centers, and retail — can increase capacity from 25% to 50%.
Larger events like concerts and graduation ceremonies will also be OK since up to 400 people will be allowed to gather for indoor and outdoor activities as long as physical distancing and masking are enforced.
"We’re excited to take this step forward," Inslee said. "We think there’s reason to be optimistic."
Currently, all counties are paused in the second phase of the plan but will move to the third phase next week.
Expanded spectator capacity for high school and youth sports will start March 18, while the remainder will take effect on March 22.
Inslee also announced changes from the previous regional metrics that had to be met, moving back to a county-by-county assessment the state had previously used. He also changed the number of COVID metrics that need to be met from four down to two.
Counties will be evaluated every three weeks, starting on April 12. If any county fails one or more of the metrics, they will move down one phase. If statewide ICU capacity tops 90%, all counties will move back to the most restrictive first phase, which includes a prohibition on indoor restaurant dining.
Another change from the previous plan is that people who are incarcerated in state or federal facilities will not count toward a county’s case rate. However, workers in prisons, jails, detention centers, and other correctional facilities will continue to count.
Inslee also moved up the timeline for the next group on the vaccination schedule. Originally the group that includes law enforcement and workers in agriculture and grocery stores was supposed to become eligible March 22, now they will be on March 17.
There have been 327,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Washington state, and 5,100 deaths. The state has seen a steady decline in new daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths since earlier this year, though health officials on Thursday expressed concern that the number of new cases have started to plateau. Officials also continue to be alarmed by an increased detection of the highly contagious variants of the virus in the state.
The state has exceeded its goal of 45,000 vaccinations a day, with a current 7-day average of 46,119, More than 2.1 million doses of vaccine have been administered to date, and more than 10% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.