COVID-19 updates about returning to school

Public Health Essentials! A blog by the Snohomish Health District.

By Kari Bray / Snohomish Health District

We’ve now seen multiple weeks of decreasing COVID-19 case rates in Snohomish County. The proverbial curve of this disease is again bending in the direction we want to see for our community.

This has understandably raised questions about returning to in-person learning at local schools. The health officer’s prior recommendation of July 29 to begin the school year with remote learning was issued when case rates were alarmingly close to 100 per 100,000 people. We’ve dropped down to about 44 per 100,000. How does that change things?

The short answer is: Decreasing case rates are good news, but we are not yet near the threshold for resuming in-person learning for all students in Snohomish County. A gradual return to in-person school based on factors such as students’ age or special needs is the recommendation at this time.

There’s a lot to keep track of during this pandemic, and it can feel overwhelming. We want to keep parents and guardians up-to-date during an unusual back-to-school season.

What are the thresholds?

The state has laid out a framework to help guide the reopening of schools. Snohomish Health District Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters also provided updated recommendations late last week to public and private K-12 schools in Snohomish County. The guidance is based on the state’s framework, and defers to schools on how to best serve their students within that framework.

Under the statewide guidance, a case rate of >75 per 100,000 population is considered high transmission and the recommendation is remote or distance learning. Limited in-person instruction may be arranged for small cohorts of students who need extra support.

At a rate between 25 and 75 cases per 100,000, schools could look at gradually resuming some in-person instruction and using hybrid learning models to blend online and in-person learning. The recommendation is to focus on getting younger, elementary age children and students with special needs back in school for in-person instruction first, and to phase older students in later.

Then, at 25 or fewer cases per 100,000, schools could consider resuming in-person learning for all ages, with health and safety measures in place and as physical space allows.

Remember that there are many other factors to consider aside from the case rates. School leaders continue to work with public health as they plan for the 2020-21 school year.

Also, keep in mind that your child and family are not alone in the at times frustrating world of remote learning on such a large scale. A new map from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction shows that more than 95% of school districts in the state started this year remotely – that’s more than a million students.

So we’re in the mid-range for the framework. Should school be resuming in-person?

The most recent reported case rate for Snohomish County was 43.5 per 100,000 per 14 days, which is within the mid-range but still well above the case rate for widespread in-person learning under the framework.

“A reasonable next step is for schools to begin planning for how to expand in-person learning to elementary school students, as well as to any high needs students in any grade level not already receiving in-person services,” said Dr. Spitters. “This does not mean schools should immediately go to full, in-person attendance in all elementary school settings.”

During calls with school leadership, there’s been emphasis on a layered approach to reopening school, where schools would gradually bring back groups of students while adhering to health requirements such as face covers, distancing, suspension of in-person extra-curricular and large-group activities, and cooperation with public health staff in the event of a case or outbreak in a school setting.

Schools have been asked to wait for at least three weeks after Labor Day before expanding in-person learning, to allow observation following the holiday and the re-opening of schools in their current configuration. If at that time COVID-19 activity in the school and community remains stable or improving, and the schools otherwise feel prepared, then they can proceed with bringing elementary school students back incrementally for in-person learning.

After one group of students resumes in-person learning, schools should allow for at least three weeks before bringing in the next group. This allows time to monitor disease transmission and adjust if needed. Dr. Spitters compared it to driving on ice – it is important to proceed with caution and not move too quickly because you may need to stop, shift course or even reverse.

Local conditions, resources, and other factors may mean a school or district moves slower than this framework allows, and that is OK. It remains crucial for parents, guardians and students to monitor communications from their school.

Why start with elementary students? What about middle and high school?

In general, middle and high school students, as a group, appear to face fewer challenges with remote learning. Older students are more familiar with the technology and better able to adapt. Learning on a screen for long stretches can be especially challenging for young children.

Some middle and high school students who require learning support services may be brought back for in-person learning in small, consistent groups, but the general population of older students should remain on distance learning at this time.

Also, older students, particularly the 15-19 age range, have higher case rates than younger children and appear to be more likely to spread COVID-19 than younger children.

Have there been outbreaks in school-like settings?

Yes, there have been cases and outbreaks in facilities where children gather for care and education. Between March and August, more than 40 confirmed cases were reported in child care, school, or camp settings. Just since July, there have been more than two dozen such cases, most in child care settings.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in these settings require quarantine for those staff and children who have been exposed, and may require temporary closures of classrooms or entire facilities.

“It is inevitable that cases will occur in students and school staff as we bring more people together, but a case is not a failure on the part of the school or district,” Dr. Spitters said. “We all must be prepared and ready to respond in a coordinated and sustainable fashion.”

What about child care?

Several organizations, such as YMCA of Snohomish County, have announced child care options for students who will be learning virtually for the start of the school year. For parents who can keep children home, we do encourage you to do so at this time. Space is limited in the child care setting due to the need for spacing and small group sizes.

Child care provided by family, friends or neighbors also is an option that was in wide use even prior to the pandemic. According to the state’s Economic Resiliency Team for the coronavirus response, those interested in becoming family, friend or neighbor child care providers should start by reviewing requirements. They may qualify as “eligible providers” for Working Child Connections subsidies that help families with low incomes pay for child care. More information is available from the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Keep an eye out for communications from your school district, as some are partnering with organizations to arrange for virtual learning resources, meal distribution, and/or child care options. Information regarding child care for essential workers also may be available through your workplace or in related newsletters for workers, so be sure to check updates there, as well.

There are specific health and safety requirements for child care environments. The Washington State Department of Health has laid out those requirements in a guidance document. Key pieces of the guidance include keeping ill children out of child care, maintaining small groups or cohorts that are consistent and do not mix, enforcing frequent hand hygiene and mask use for all adults and most children (children younger than 2 should not wear a face cover, and children ages 3-5 may be unable to keep a mask on), increased cleaning and ventilation, and physical distancing of children.

It is important that existing child care providers and organizations seeking to provide child care also check licensing requirements and options from the Department of Children, Youth and Families, which has COVID-19 resources and information available online.

For parents or guardians who are looking for child care options, DCYF has resources available online, and Child Care Aware of Washington offers another good resource for finding child care.

Other important tips

• Bus stops: As students gradually begin to return to school in-person, please remember that the schools are following specific health and safety requirements. This includes sending children who are showing symptoms home. If you drop your child off at the bus stop, wait with them until they have boarded the bus. Don’t leave the bus driver in a difficult position if a child is coughing or sneezing but there’s no parent or guardian there to take them home.

•Socializing: The interactions that children have in the learning or child care environment are important, and many parents have expressed concerns about reduced social interactions during the pandemic. When socializing, even for children, please remember to keep group sizes small. For some, arranging for child care with a friend or family member may help while schools are closed for in-person learning. However, it’s important to still keep group sizes small and consistent. Stick with no more than five people from outside of your household, and with the same five people to limit potential exposures.

•Face coverings: We know that it can be a challenge to get children, particularly young children, to put on and keep on their face coverings. If you haven’t already, start working to get them comfortable with wearing face covers, as well as seeing other people wearing them. It looks different when your teachers and friends are masked up, but it doesn’t have to be scary. There are a number of resources and tips for helping kids be more comfortable with face coverings. Check out this Washington State Department of Health blog for some ideas. And remember, one of the best ways to help kids with face coverings is to wear them yourself. You are the model for your children.

The Public Health Essentials! blog highlights the work of the Snohomish Health District and shares health-related information and tips.

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