Governor Inslee loosens guidelines for schools reopening

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is loosening school reopening guidelines amid a resurging coronavirus pandemic and pleading with reluctant teachers to return to the classroom, particularly those tasked with educating the youngest and neediest students.

Inslee, a Democrat, on Wednesday unveiled the state’s latest reopening standards, which urge schools to begin phasing in in-person learning no matter what the community COVID-19 infection rates are, and to resist reverting back to remote learning should transmissions further increase.

That’s a stark departure for the Democratic administration, which has until now taken a more cautious approach.

The ultimate decision on how and when to reopen schools is up to individual districts.

Following Inslee's briefing, Washington Education Association president, Larry Delaney said safety plans must be in place on "day one" for districts and stressed the implementation of these guidelines will take time, which he said WEA will advocate before schools expand in-person learning.

"We agree with the Governor that the spotlight should be on L&I safety requirements, which are key for building trust with educators, students, and families," said Delaney in a statement from the WEA's office. "Districts must meet those requirements on day one. We need to know that there is adequate PPE, distancing, ventilation, an active and trained safety committee in each building, effective plans for contact tracing, testing and clear communications regarding protocols for what happens when a case is detected in school," said Delaney.

We spoke with Federal Way Middle School special education teacher, Shannon Mccann, who says she was disappointed by today's annoucement. "A vaccine is on the way, why are they rushing a couple days before break to talk about this?" Mccann says she thinks the focus right now should be on slowing down cases and discussing the extensive work that needs to be done before schools can open their doors. "We have to have deliberate planning and time and training and resources." Mccan feels the timing of today's annoucement is strange, with cases being higher than ever. "Its exhasuting to do remote learning for everyone. We are exhasuted but we are alive, and thats what the focus needs to be."

Washington state saw the nation’s first confirmed virus case in late January. The governor on April 6 issued an emergency order to keep schools across the state closed through the end of the school year, and in the fall, pushed most schools to remain online-only.

The new metrics say communities with the highest COVID-19 activity, where test positivity exceeds 10%, should phase in in-person instruction by limiting learning groups to 15 students. Students in pre-Kindergarten through 3rd grade, and students in any grade who may struggle with disabilities, homelessness or other socioeconomic disadvantages should be prioritized before adding 4th and 5th graders. No in-person extra-curricular activities are recommended.

Those in moderate-risk areas, where the test positivity rate is between 5% and 10%, should prioritize both elementary and middle schoolers, and allow extra-curriculars that meet safety standards.

And where positive testing rates are below 5%, the governor suggests high schoolers may return too.