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Surge in cases has Puget Sound schools rethinking plans to bring students back in person

Puget Sound schools continue to grapple with the COVID crisis. (Seattle Public Schools, Facebook)

With COVID-19 cases beginning to tick back up, schools across the Puget Sound region are rethinking their plans for having students return to classrooms in person.

Why decision for in-person classes was left up to school boards

The benchmark for “high risk” counties as laid out by state officials is 75 new cases per every 100,000 people over a two week period. That’s part of a larger decision tree issued to school districts as guidance for when it is (and isn’t) safe to hold in-person classes.

With Snohomish County approaching 72 cases per 100,000, the county announced Tuesday that it is asking schools to “hold where they’re currently at” for bringing students back into classrooms.

“They don’t need to move backwards, but they shouldn’t bring any additional students in at this time,” said Snohomish County Health District Administrative Officer Shawn Frederick during a Tuesday press conference.

The county plans to continue monitoring new cases through next Monday, and will consult with school districts on Oct. 20 to figure out the next steps.

King County has seen a similar uptick in cases. After six weeks under the 75 cases per 100,000 people threshold, it has “rebounded into the 80s,” according to a recent release from Seattle-King County Public Health.

The county is not advising schools to roll back reopening measures, citing the fact that “continuity for kids and educators is one important factor that school districts need to weigh before making quick shifts to all distance-learning, particularly for early grades.”

Majority of Washington students start school year fully remote

King County schools preparing to bring back students in lower grades and those with special needs “can continue cautiously, provided they are taking the precautions recommended by state and local health officials.”

“That includes wearing masks, physical distancing in the classroom, improved ventilation, enhanced sanitation and grouping kids in cohorts to limit their exposure,” the county outlined.

In Pierce County, health officials are reporting roughly 78 cases per every 100,000 residents (with a six-day reporting lag), a result of “increasing community transmission, more household transmissions, and multiple positive tests from one long-term care facility.” Without a reporting lag, that rate would be closer to 90 cases per every 100,000.

The higher rate has seen many school districts in Pierce County pause their reopening process as well, following guidance from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

At this point it’s unclear what Puget Sound schools plan to do in the days ahead, but health districts are continuing to monitor new cases during a surge brought on by colder weather and more time spent indoors.

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