Third-grade teacher Lisa Thompson walks by her students, separated at six-foot distance, at Eagle Creek Elementary in January, 2021 in Arlington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald file photo)

Third-grade teacher Lisa Thompson walks by her students, separated at six-foot distance, at Eagle Creek Elementary in January, 2021 in Arlington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Local health officials should set mask policy

The state schools chief says local health district policy should replace the state’s mask mandate.

By The Herald Editorial Board

In many ways, the question over how to lift Washington state’s indoor mask mandate — especially that for the state’s K-12 schools and its more than 1 million students — is something like removing a bandage: Should we rip it off all at once or more slowly and carefully?

As far as the head of the state’s public school system is concerned, while it’s a question that is still best left up to public health officials, that discussion should begin now.

State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal last week asked Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Health to lift the state’s mask mandate for schools and allow local public health officials to make the call as to when mask requirements might be lifted — and potentially — when they might have to be reimposed.

Earlier in the pandemic, Reykdal was among those who strongly defended the mask mandate as public schools returned to hybrid schedules and then fully open classrooms, especially when access to vaccines and rapid covid tests was limited and infection rates, hospitalizations and death rates were climbing during the delta and omicron surges.

That landscape has now changed, Reykdal said, noting the decline in case rates and hospitalizations and discussions with school districts.

“I believe it is safe and timely to eliminate the statewide masking requirement for students and allow for a decision by local health officials,” he said in a release.

The omicron surge is not over; but the state’s seven-day rolling average of new covid cases has dropped from 22,770 on Jan. 24 — its omicron surge high — to 6,278 as of Sunday. At the same time, Washington state enjoys a relatively high rate of vaccination: 70.5 percent of state residents, 5 or older, fully vaccinated.

Those numbers, weighed against the impacts of universal masking on the learning environment, Reykdal said, call for a reconsideration of the mandate and for decisions to be more locally focused.

Already, there’s been some pushback against the state superintendent’s recommendation. Larry Delaney, a high school math teacher for Snohomish County’s Lakewood School District and now the head of the state’s largest teachers union, the Washington Education Association, said in a statement that lifting the mandate was likely to worsen disruptions for schools and classrooms.

“At a time when schools, particularly those in communities of color and low-income communities, are facing staffing shortages we must anticipate that lifting the mask mandate will exacerbate the shortages and could interrupt learning,” Delaney said in a statement.

There’s also concern as to who should make the call on mask requirements. Imposing that decision on individual school districts and school boards would invite the potential for members of the public to pressure school boards to lift requirements when the numbers and the situations at individual schools and communities call for masks to remain.

If we’re following the science, that’s a decision that’s best left to health officials.

Reykdal’s call, then, to turn over the decision on mask requirements to county public health officials provides an opportunity to tailor a response at a county or even a school district level, providing flexibility and protection.

A look at recent numbers shows why that’s a call best made locally. For the current school year, from August to the end of last year, Snohomish County school districts led the state with 118 covid-19 outbreaks, affecting 42 percent of schools and a total of 1,967 cases. King County had the next highest number of outbreaks, 107, involving 11 percent of districts, but at 774 cases, far less than half that in Snohomish County, according to the state Department of Health’s latest report for covid-19 outbreaks in public schools.

And if the masks are going to come off, Snohomish County parents — especially those of younger students — will need to step up vaccinations. The Snohomish Health District’s most recent numbers show that while nearly 72 percent of youths 16 to 19 are fully vaccinated, that number dips to 54.5 percent for children 12 to 15 and only 25.7 percent for those ages 5 to 11.

As part of the precautions taken in public schools to protect the health of students, teachers and school staff, assurance is needed that other parts of the covid safety net are secure and able to take up the slack, especially vaccinations, but also ample supplies of rapid test kits, continued isolation of those who test positive and other steps to encourage good hygiene and limit exposure to covid.

Reykdal and his office should now work with the governor’s office and the state Department of Health to set guidelines and benchmarks for case rates and vaccination numbers that will allow county level health districts and departments to make decisions on when and how schools might allow for voluntary rather than mandatory mask use.

The bandage may be ready to come off, just not all at once.

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