OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee doesn’t want schools in the state’s coronavirus hot spots reopening this fall, but he stopped short Wednesday of ordering their closure, as he did in March.
Rather, at a news conference Inslee called for continued use of distance learning in public and private schools in counties like Snohomish, where the potentially deadly virus is spreading most rapidly.
“Unfortunately, as we’ve been talking about for the last few weeks with this virus, the rate of transmission is not low enough as we need it to be,” Inslee said. “… These are strong recommendations and they are based on science, they are based on the health of our children, and they are based on the shared experience that we are not going to allow our state to be hammered by this virus the way other states and countries have been.”
The governor outlined a recommendation from health and education leaders that divides the state’s 39 counties into categories of low, moderate and high risk based on their respective infection rates.
Snohomish County is among 25 counties deemed high risk, which is defined as having 75 cases or more per 100,000 residents in a two-week period. Locally, the Snohomish Health District is reporting about 100 cases per 100,000 residents, per a Friday report.
Nine counties are in the moderate-risk category, with 25 to 75 cases per 100,000, and five are in the low-risk category, with fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 residents.
“The vast, vast majority of Washington students are in (moderate- or high-risk counties),” Inslee said.
Schools in high-risk counties should strongly consider distance learning, with an option for limited in-person instruction for students with special needs, according to the recommendations.
All in-person extracurricular activities, including sports and the performing arts, should be canceled under recommendations Inslee said were crafted in concert with the state Department of Health and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
In moderate-risk counties, schools should consider in-person learning options for elementary students and those with special needs while maintaining distance learning for middle school and high school students.
Elementary students in low-risk counties should return for full-time in-person learning, under the recommendations. However, schools are encouraged to offer a blend of in-person and distance learning for middle and high school students.
Even before Inslee’s announcement, leaders of public schools in Snohomish County had decided not to bring students back to campuses that have been closed since March.
They hoped to offer a blend of in-person and online instruction in all grades. But Dr. Chris Spitters, the county’s top health officer, dashed those aspirations when he told local superintendents late last month that bringing students back to campuses was risky.
The county’s infection rate, which is reaching highs previously seen in March, makes in-person learning too dangerous, Spitters said.
Within days, several of the county’s largest school districts announced plans for remote learning this fall.
“We rely on health experts to guide us and give us recommendations,” said Gary Sabol, spokesman for the Arlington School District. “That’s why we took that to heart.”
A district advisory committee on reopening options shifted emphasis from a hybrid model to one based on all distance learning with limited in-person instruction for students with special learning needs. It parallels guidance in the framework put out by Inslee.
“It’s echoing the conversations we’ve had,” Sabol said. “There’s nothing that took us by surprise.”
However, some private schools argued that their smaller class sizes made it safer for them to offer in-person instruction.
Spitters subsequently said the risk was too high was for all schools, regardless of size.
The new recommendations from the state also apply to private, tribal and charter schools, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal said during Wednesday’s news conference.
“We’re confident that folks will follow it,” he said.
Neither the state’s nor the health district’s recommendations bar schools from trying to reopen. Wednesday’s recommendation was meant to provide a framework for local leaders to make decisions, Inslee said.
It’s unnecessary, he said, to mandate school closures if districts follow the state’s framework.
“Could that change? Certainly, it could change,” Inslee said.
If schools choose to welcome students back, they must show the state they can do so safely.
Districts that choose remote learning must combat the issues they faced in the spring. Parents, teachers and administrators have all acknowledged problems surrounding online coursework, internet access and food insecurity.
“We are a long ways ahead of where we were last spring,” Reykdal said. “We’ve done a lot of work here to be ready for this … but nothing about this is ideal.”
Also Wednesday, Inslee said Reykdal’s office will receive $8.8 million in federal CARES Act funding to help pay for internet connectivity and technology needs for low-income families. In addition, the governor’s office is working with philanthropists and technology associations to fill the technical needs of students amid the continuance of distance learning.
Statewide, school administrators started making plans to reopen as soon as they closed their doors in the spring.
In June, Rekydal told reporters he expected students would return to classrooms for the upcoming school year.
His office issued 55 pages of guidance and requirements school districts needed to follow to reopen with any degree of face-to-face instruction. He also directed districts to submit reopening plans to the state at least two weeks before the first scheduled day of classes.
At the time, Inslee issued a proclamation clearing the way for such a reboot of the state’s education systems — while warning it might not happen.
“This virus is unpredictable and has upended our regular ways of doing everything. We cannot guarantee that school will open in fall,” he said. “Kids need to be learning but they also need to be safe and healthy.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.