OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday again urged school districts to resume in-person learning with updated guidelines and a state-sponsored testing program for students and staff.
For months, public health experts have said bringing students back to the classroom — in phased reopenings, with safety measures and a hybrid schedule — has been safer than previously predicted and hasn’t caused an increase in community-wide transmission. Last week, reports from the Snohomish Health District, the state Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all echoed that sentiment.
“We know that in-person instruction is the best way to do instruction, and we know that this can be done safely,” Inslee said during a Tuesday news conference. “This is tremendous news for our state.”
The governor then outlined his “Learn to Return” plan, which aims to accelerate in-person education by offering districts state-funded COVID testing for students and staff, through the nonprofit Health Commons Project.
Each district is assigned a consultant to develop a strategy for on-site testing. That could include only testing people experiencing COVID symptoms, or doing random asymptomatic screening.
The new tool is intended to build confidence in teachers and families, Inslee said.
In Snohomish County, thousands of students across a dozen districts have returned since the fall for some level of in-person instruction.
In that time, about 20% of COVID cases among students and staff have been linked to in-class transmission, according to a Snohomish Health District report, as opposed to contracting the virus elsewhere.
“This report shows that the prevention and intervention measures are working to protect staff and students,” Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said during a Tuesday media briefing. “Our schools have been working hard to make the classroom as safe as possible.”
Statewide, more than 60 districts have already signed up for the service, including Monroe and Lakewood.
The Lakewood School District is hoping to start the program at each of its five schools on Monday.
Currently, students in kindergarten through fifth grade are back on campus for in-person learning, with the three lowest grades attending four days a week. Students in third through fifth grades are attending under a hybrid schedule.
“We want to get the testing in place for the extra layer of protection for our students and staff,” Superintendent Scott Peacock said.
Under the district’s program, a registered nurse will conduct a diagnostic test (PCR) for any symptomatic student or staff member, with results expected within 48 hours, Peacock said. The district employs a registered nurse at each campus.
Testing is not mandatory and can only be done for students with parental or guardian permission, Peacock said.
All costs are picked up by the state Department of Health.
Some have argued that teachers should be vaccinated before they return to work, which would delay the return to in-class instruction for months.
But remote learning isn’t working for the state’s students, Inslee said, especially those experiencing poverty or who live in rural districts.
“Despite our best efforts, that has been the fact,” Inslee said. “Schools provide nutrition and many other services that kids can’t get at home. … If these students can safely return to class, we should feel a sense of urgency to answer this paramount duty to our students.”
Additionally, the federal report found that schools can safely reopen without vaccinating teachers.
Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.