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Gov. Inslee, Mayor Durkan push to get kids back in school ‘safely and soon’

Gov. Inslee visiting Phantom Lake Elementary School in the Bellevue School District on March 2, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Gov. Inslee/Twitter)

Governor Jay Inslee said Thursday that more than half of elementary schools in Washington state have returned to some form of onsite instruction, and roughly half of elementary school aged students are back in the classroom after nearly a year since schools moved remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“I think this is great progress for two reasons,” Inslee said. “Number one, we all understand that in-person learning is the best environment for students. It is the best environment to have that magic relationship with their teachers that means so much to them. And second, we know that in-person learning can be accomplished across our state with safety when we use the protocols that we know work in the state of Washington.”

The governor says we know in-person learning can be done safely because it is being done safely in schools statewide already.

“Our educational community has shown us that they can do this job on site,” he said. “And now that we know this, it is reasonable to expect and we do expect that schools will provide onsite options for parents and students in the near future. Because even without having our school staff vaccinated, we know that we can get this job done. And we now know that in the upcoming weeks, our educators will have options to become vaccinated.”

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan echoed the governor’s push to get kids back in school, adding that the pandemic has only exacerbated the existing social inequities, including the opportunity gap for low-income students across the state of Washington and in the city of Seattle.

“We are really hoping that we can reopen schools so that we can get the support that we know our students need,” Durkan said. “… We know that this has been hard on the kids. It’s been enormously hard on the parents. We know it’s really challenged our teachers themselves to try to connect with their students. And we also know that the levels of depression, and anxiety, and stress in our young people has been very extreme.”

She went on to say that not having in-class education sets our kids back, particularly students of color who were already struggling with the opportunity gap.

“Every month they’re not in school jeopardizes their future,” Durkan said.

The mayor spoke to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says schools can open for in-person instruction, especially in regions like Seattle where prevention measures are being taken to limit the spread of the virus. Durkan reported that Seattle has the lowest cases and hospitalizations of any major city in America, even though it was the original epicenter “with no guidebook.”

Per the CDC’s guidance, schools should be the first to open and the last thing to close if there were to be another uptick in cases.

“We know that families, teachers, children, all want our schools to open. And I’m really hoping we can do so safely and soon,” Durkan said.

“Nothing during this pandemic has been easy, but nothing has probably weighed on our hearts and minds more than the struggles our families are having,” she added. “And among those is the impact this will have on our children and their futures going forward.”

Gov. Inslee echoed the point Durkan made about continuing to follow safe protocols even in schools that reopen, which has happened in more than 1,000 schools in Washington that have now returned to in-person learning with minimal transmission, he said.

“We know this can be done because educators have been so disciplined and innovative and have worked hard to make sure that we do this safely,” Inslee said.

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Responding to the Seattle teachers’ union vote to remain remote

Following a question from a reporter about the Seattle Education Association’s vote to not return to the classroom due to safety concerns, Inslee again spoke to the “certainty” that a return can be done safely. He noted that it’s understandable that educators, bus drivers, cooks, and counselors are concerned about the virus, adding that when the decision early in the pandemic was made to close school buildings and teach remotely, it was done in a “vacuum of information.”

Now, he says, we need to make decisions based on what we know, and he says we know schools are capable of opening in a safe way because there are schools doing it safely today in Washington state.

Gov. Inslee shared that he comes from a family of teachers, and that shapes how he thinks about this.

“I can tell you I would never send a teacher into an unsafe working condition, I would never do that. I would never do that for anyone,” he said. “… I would have no hesitation on this green Earth to ask my brother to go to work today in a school building that had these protocols of the nature that the schools have been using to date.”

But we do have to follow the protocols, Inslee said, with a way to do contact tracing and ensure compliance of masks, and 1,400 schools in Washington have figured out a way to do that.

That said, the governor does not control school districts, so he sees his role in this to share information with the larger community.

“The information I’m sharing with you, I hope, will provide, over time, additional confidence on how we can get this job done,” he said. “Fundamentally, this is a challenge between fear that is very human, and we all understand that, and confidence, which also is very important, in our community. … And certainly, now that teachers have access to the vaccine, which they clearly have asked for repeatedly, I would hope would give them an added measure of confidence as well.”

“But as the CDC has shown, and the evidence has shown, and our own experience has shown, we had a way to do this safely already,” he added.

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