State superintendent: Still a chance of school closures, but decision will fall to districts

Jan 6, 2022, 12:43 PM
Seattle school vaccine mandate, closures...
(Seattle Public Schools, Facebook)
(Seattle Public Schools, Facebook)

With the omicron variant continuing to drive COVID-19 cases past record levels in Washington, questions continue to swirl over whether there may be school closures in the near future. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal spoke to KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show on Thursday to provide some clarity.

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Throughout the latter months of the pandemic, Reykdal has frequently emphasized how public health situations can vary from region to region, and as such, it’ll largely be up to individual districts to assess their respective levels of risk, and decide on potential school closures themselves.

“What we’ve tried to make clear that we’ve now got the vaccine, we’ve got these good protocols, which is face coverings, distancing, air exchanges, hand washing and hygiene,” he noted. “As we’ve gotten these things, we’ve decoupled the most severe risk, which is obviously loss of life from cases.”

“Therefore we changed our posture from the state making these closure mandates to making it a local decision,” he continued. “We are not going to make any determinations out of Olympia to close the state of Washington to learning, and we are not going to do it by region or by county.”

That means the decision on closures will ultimately lie with individual districts based on a variety of factors, from adequate staffing amid surges in cases, to the relative safety of school buildings. Because of that, Reykdal warns that schools could end up deciding to implement closures of their own should those factors come into play.

“We are going to continue though to remind folks that you are going to have regions and places, maybe it’s a school building, or maybe even an entire district, where the case counts are causing enough people to call in sick, particularly educators, where they can’t actually function,” he said. “In which case, the locals can determine to close for a very brief period of time.”

Testing and isolation

Speaking to confusion over the CDC’s newly-released guidelines on returning to work or school after a positive COVID-19 test, Reykdal says the state Department of Health plans to offer its own clarification in the next couple days.

Aside from that, though, the bottom line is that “if you are testing positive for COVID, you need to immediately isolate and quarantine.”

“We’re still going to ask folks, if you are sick, do not go to work — if your child is sick and has a confirmed positive case, please keep them home,” he said. “The difference with this (variant), because it comes so fast, it’s identified so quickly in the nasal passages and leaves, and you’re going to be able to shrink that [quarantine] from 10 days to five days and still do this safely.”

“But it’s very different than saying come to work if you have a positive COVID test,” he added. “We still need people to isolate and quarantine for those five days.”

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As for whether a negative COVID test should be a requirement for leaving isolation, Reykdal pointed out while “it’s still a really good practice,” a shortage of available tests has made that a difficult requirement to insist upon.

“Imagine being in a community where you can’t get (tested) and you’re feeling fine, your symptoms have abated, and you’re ready to go back to work, but you can’t find a test for 10 days or 14 days — that’s just not going to work,” he said.

His hope is that a recent influx of tests from the state will help mitigate that issue, with Gov. Inslee stressing a focus on providing that assistance to schools in the days and weeks to come.

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.

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State superintendent: Still a chance of school closures, but decision will fall to districts