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Some Washington counties can consider gradual return to in-person learning

A teacher removes student assignments that remained posted outside her classroom from the 2019-2020 school year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on August 25, 2020, in New York City. New York City public schools are scheduled to start Sept. 10 with new guidelines in place for how they will operate. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

In early August, Gov. Inslee’s office urged most schools in Washington state to consider enacting distance learning when school resumed in the fall. Counties were separated into three categories of risk — high, moderate, and low — in terms of a feasible return to in-person learning.

While the following recommendations based on risk categories were not a legally binding requirement, 95% of students returned to school remotely statewide in September.

Majority of Washington students will be starting schools year fully remote

For high risk counties — those with over 75 new cases per every 100,000 residents over a two-week period — Inslee “strongly” recommended distance learning for students at every level, with limited in-person options for students with disabilities.

The recommendation for moderate risk counties, with between 25 to 75 new cases per every 100,000 residents, is to have distance learning for middle and high school students, with in-person learning for elementary school students and those with disabilities.

In low risk counties — under 25 new cases per every 100,000 residents — the recommendation was to have a hybrid model incorporating both distance and in-person learning for middle and high schools, and full-time in-person classes for elementary school students.

The Decision Tree for K-12 Reopening from the state Department of Health outlines that schools can begin to consider reopening slowly for some in-person learning when their county is in the moderate category. It recommends that younger students be prioritized for a return to schools in-person.

As of Sept. 14, there are now 10 counties in the low-risk category. There are 14 counties still listed as high-risk, reporting more than 75 new cases per 100,000.

King and Pierce counties were high risk in August, but have now moved into the moderate risk category. However, this does not mean that students will immediately return to schools. Both Public Health — Seattle & King County and the Tacoma-Pierce Health Department have indicated that a return to school would not happen prior to two weeks after Labor Day, as increasing trends in new cases were seen in Washington following the holiday weekends of Fourth of July and Memorial Day. The transmission rates continue to be monitored to ensure that the downward trend remains for at least 14 days.

In Pierce County, which has a rate of 65.4 new cases per 100,000 over the past two weeks, schools “can consider a gradual return to in-person learning.” Read the letter from the health district sent to the school superintendents concerning this requirement.

For King County, which has a rate of 68.1 per 100,000, the public health department says it is supporting schools and communities in preparation for in-school learning by updating key metrics and developing a school COVID-19 response toolkit.

Most schools remains closed to in-person learning for now because bringing students, staff, and teachers back together when there is still high community transmission “could result in a major increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, with subsequent impacts on the hospital system and our communities as a whole,” according to a recent blog post on Public Health Insider.

If transmission rates remain moderate or decline, King County health officials say school districts may decide to bring some students back based on their individual assessments, plans, and abilities.

‘It’s regular school now’: Washington aims for improved virtual learning as classes begin

According to the state DOH, guidelines for resuming in-person learning include: face coverings, physical distancing, keeping students in small and consistent groups, increased cleaning and sanitation, and improved ventilation in buildings.

“Returning to the classrooms still has risk, and schools, families and communities can work together to reduce that risk,” reads the Public Health Insider. “There is so much we don’t know about how this school year will unfold. Returning to in-classroom education will require all of us to keep rates of community spread as low as possible by committing to health practices, including physical distancing, wearing masks, and keeping gatherings small. Together all of us – caregivers, students, school staff and community partners – can be an active part of keeping everyone healthy and learning together.”

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