Many Arlington second and third grade students will be coming back to campus in a hybrid model starting Jan. 19. (Arlington Public Schools)

Many Arlington second and third grade students will be coming back to campus in a hybrid model starting Jan. 19. (Arlington Public Schools)

Governor urges schools to phase in classroom learning

With many districts doing online-only teaching, it’s a stark departure from the present approach.

OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is loosening school reopening guidelines amid a resurgent coronavirus pandemic and pleading with reluctant teachers to return to the classroom, particularly those tasked with educating the youngest and neediest students.

“It is our hope that people will have a fair-minded look at the evidence that (shows) this is good for their educational commitment and their students,” Inslee said of teachers.

At a news conference, the governor acknowledged he’d have to win some teachers over and said he would consider their safety concerns and risk factors as the state rolls out its COVID-19 vaccine program, but he stopped short of committing to having teachers jump ahead in the line.

Inslee, a Democrat, unveiled the state’s latest reopening standards on Wednesday, which urge schools to begin phasing in in-person learning no matter what the community COVID-19 infection rates are, and to resist reverting to remote learning should transmissions further increase.

With most school districts now doing online-only teaching, it’s a stark departure for his administration, which has until now taken a more cautious approach.

Inslee stressed that his recommendations are not enforceable orders and that the ultimate decision on how and when to reopen schools is up to individual districts.

A handful of districts in Snohomish County have offered classroom instruction for some elementary grades for much of the fall quarter.

Arlington Public Schools, which now has in-person learning for kindergarten and first grade, announced Tuesday it will bring second- and third-grade classes back under a hybrid learning model starting Jan. 19.

Also, the district intends to have kindergarten and first-grade pupils revert back to all distance learning for a short time following the winter break. They will return to in-person instruction Jan. 19.

Reopening isn’t always a popular idea.

Leaders of the Monroe School District in November brought first-graders back for in-person learning, then canceled their return after two days of face-to-face instruction. Teachers opposed the move and parents were concerned about student safety. Many teachers and some students stayed home those two days.

Washington saw the nation’s first confirmed virus case in late January. The governor on April 6 issued an emergency order to keep schools across the state closed through the end of the school year, and in the fall pushed most schools to remain online-only.

The new metrics say communities with the highest COVID-19 activity, where test positivity exceeds 10%, should phase in in-person instruction by limiting learning groups to 15 students. Students in pre-kindergarten through third grade — and students in any grade who may struggle with disabilities, homelessness or other socioeconomic disadvantages — should be prioritized before adding fourth- and fifth-graders. No in-person extra-curricular activities are recommended.

Snohomish County, whose rolling case rate hit 448 per 100,000 people for the latest reported two-week period, would fall under the guidance for “high” COVID-19 activity.

Those in moderate-risk areas, where the test positivity rate is between 5% and 10%, should prioritize both elementary and middle schoolers, and allow extra-curriculars that meet safety standards.

And where positive testing rates are below 5%, the governor suggests high schoolers may return, too.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has supported school reopening. The nation’s top infectious disease expert said in November spread of the virus “among children and from children is not really very big at all, not like one would have suspected. So let’s try to get the kids back, but let’s try to mitigate the things that maintain and just push the kind of community spread that we’re trying to avoid.”

Inslee’s hour-long news conference on Wednesday featured a parade of notable health and school officials who uniformly spelled out concerns for the suffering of vulnerable children and their academic, social, emotional and mental needs during the global crisis. Only 15% of Washington state’s 1.2 million K-12 students are receiving any form of in-person instruction.

Inslee also profusely praised teachers as heroes, yet his announcement didn’t feature comments from any working teachers.

The Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union, said it wasn’t consulted on the latest guidance and was only made aware of it hours before Inslee announced them publicly.

WEA president Larry Delaney said teachers were surprised and displeased by the new metrics, which lower the bar for school reopening. The teachers union president also stressed the law requires safe working conditions before schools can reopen and that each school system would have to reconcile reopening plans with the reality of their local coronavirus infection rates.

“My hope is that school districts don’t take this announcement today as free rein to bring students back,” Delaney said.

Among the safety requirements to which schools must adhere to have in-person instruction: symptom screening, physical distancing, frequent hand washing and sanitizing, face coverings, increased cleaning and disinfection, improved ventilation, and systems in place for isolation, quarantine, testing and contact tracing. Schools should also designate COVID-19 coordinators and leaders.

“I am urging all districts, labor and management, to sit down immediately,” said state Superintendent Chris Reykdal.

Inslee said all evidence so far, both nationally and at school districts in the state that are allowing in-person learning, suggests a return to school can be safe even in high transmission areas when the right precautions are in place. The governor also announced $3 million in federal money that will be distributed to school districts to prepare for the return to classrooms.

While there’s no doubt that some increased transmission may occur as schools re-open, Inslee said, when cases climb, schools should pause their phase-in process but shouldn’t revert to remote learning.

“I would not have made this recommendation to any teacher unless I was willing to make it to my brother and my brother in law and my sister in law,” Inslee said of his family members who are or were classroom teachers. “It took me a while to come to this conclusion.”

Sally Ho of The Associated Press and Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Two brother bear cubs, burned in a fire last summer, were recently reunited at PAWS in Lynnwood. (PAWS) 20211129
Bear cubs, burned in wildfires, reunited in viral video in Lynnwood

The brother cubs are being treated at PAWS Wildlife Center. They were injured in a wildfire near Lake Chelan.

The Pacific Ice rink under construction at Port of Everett on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Port of Everett unveils seasonal ice rink on the waterfront

The outdoor rink will be open through the end of January. The port plans for it to return annually.

A fatal crash prompted closure of West Mukilteo Boulevard between Forest Park and Dogwood Drive Friday afternoon. (Everett Police Department) 20211126
2 identified in deadly T-bone crash in Everett

Otila Retel Azanedo de Jones, 67, and William Jones, 85, died at the scene.

Reagan Dunn to take on U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier in 8th District

The Republican is challenging incumbent Democrat Kim Schrier in a district which could include a slice of Snohomish County.

A man died after he was found with gunshot wounds Saturday in downtown Everett. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)
Man dead after shooting in downtown Everett

The man, believed to be in his 40s, was found near California Street and Rockefeller Avenue.

Rear Adm. Christopher Sweeney, commander of Puget Sound-based Carrier Strike Group 11, in Bremerton on Nov. 23, 2021. (U.S. Navy/MC3 Justin McTaggart)
From Everett, this rear admiral commands a Navy strike group

Christopher Sweeney leads Carrier Strike Group 11, a force of aircraft and ships stretching from here to San Diego.

Charges: Everett ID thief tried to buy wheels, speakers, more

The man, 33, was charged this week with 10 counts of identity theft in Snohomish County Superior Court.

Jacob Akers in his replica Dude sweater from The Big Leboswki on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Dude, you’re knitting some bodacious ‘Big Lebowski’ sweaters

Jacob Akers, 29, a Costco shelf stocker, knits cardigans made famous by the 1998 cult classic guy flick.

Resident escapes burning trailer near Gold Bar

Nobody was injured in the fire Saturday, but the home was destroyed.

Most Read