Superintendent says protocols make Washington classrooms some of the ‘safest in the country’
In just two weeks, many kids will heading back to classrooms in Washington state. But with the current rise in COVID-19 cases and threat of the delta variant, the big question on the mind of a lot of parents, teachers, and students is: Will schools be able to keep the doors open?
Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, is confident in the measures that are in place. He also told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show that he does expect the governor to follow his request and mandate vaccinations for all school personnel.
“I think we’ll hear an announcement here in the next day or two, consistent with state employees,” he said. “… And of course I have to remind everybody that a vaccine mandate comes with options for employees, so medical or religious exemption. It is a false statement to say the choice is to get vaccinated or lose your job. There are options for folks.”
Without that mandate yet in place, host Gee Scott drew attention to what’s happening across the country at schools that have already reopened. In-person instruction has been suspended due to COVID-19 outbreaks at schools in nearly a dozen counties in Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas. Almost 6,000 students and staff are in quarantine in just one district in the state of Florida.
The plan for Washington is still for schools to move forward with 100% in-person instruction. But what happens if outbreaks occur?
“There is a plan in every district should a public health official make that declaration,” Reykdal said about any possible outbreak. “I still don’t expect that. We are opening schools.”
“We’re in fact about ready to open schools all over Eastern Washington next week,” he added. “It’s exactly why I support the governor’s mask order — universal masking without any exceptions in our buildings, and a vaccine requirement for staff. This is the kind of multiple layers that allow us to open school and keep them open, in contrast to what we’re seeing all over the South right now.”
Unfortunately, Reykdal says offering a hybrid model — where those who are in quarantine learn remotely while the teacher is still teaching in-person — is difficult.
“It’s one of my biggest concerns,” he said. “They have the capacity now from a technology standpoint. It’s really, really difficult to run hybrid models, which is why you saw districts pretty much open last year or for the most part closed.”
“And then right at the end as we required some districts to open, they had to run hybrid models,” he added. “But it’s really, really tough. We’re working our tails off to make it available in person for every family who wants it.”
As far as his own comfort level, he says he’s confident sending his kids to school due to the measures that are in place. His kids are also vaccinated.
“I also vaccinated my children right away. That was a family choice of ours. I know others don’t share that,” he said. “But I’ve tried to create every possible protection both for schools and my own family.”
“And it’s why our state successfully opened last year and had half the case rates, half the hospitalizations, and ultimately half the mortality rate of the nation as a whole,” he continued. “Our multiple strategies give me very high confidence. But I keep saying, I said this to Gee for the last year, it doesn’t mean perfect confidence.”
Reykdal says he knows there will be cases, just as there were some last year. Part of the state’s strategies, however, help to keep outbreaks to a minimum so continuity of learning is possible.
“What we’re avoiding is that 600 person, 400 person, 1,000 student outbreak that we’re seeing all over the South because they’re resisting vaccines, and they’re really resisting mask requirements. And that is the worst combination,” Reykdal said.
In the event that schools would have to go remote again, Reykdal is at least sure that the framework has been built to do so, and to do it better than in 2020.
“First, I hope we don’t have to. I want to be in person,” he said. “I think we built the framework to do that. But if so, you have 70,000 educators who have now experienced this for more than a year, in terms of delivering teaching and learning. You’ve got support staff who know how to deliver that remotely. We built food distribution networks to ensure that we got millions and millions of meals to families and kids who needed it. We really have built the ability to flip that switch to go remote if we absolutely have to.”
But a move to remote is what the state is trying to avoid. Reykdal says there were impacts on attendance, letter grades, and learning in general in 2020 that was fortunately not too significant, but was “impactful enough that we should try to be in person.”
“If we wear masks, if we follow our protocols, as more and more people get vaccinated, you’re going to create a protective factor in schools that is better than just about anywhere else, by a lot,” Reykdal said. “… It’s possible that some people experience quarantines, but the more we vax up and the more we mask up, we really significantly reduce the likelihood of that occurring. But you cannot rule it out. Remember masks aren’t required outdoors. So I know there’ll be some athletic events that cause issues. I know there’ll be some sports teams that have outbreaks. And we’ll have to deal with those one at a time.”
“But our classrooms, I just can’t imagine are anything but the safest in the country based on the protocol we have and the request I’ve made of the governor that would make us the safest state in the country,” he added.
Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.