On Wednesday Governor Jay Inslee, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, and State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy laid out some guidelines for school districts and county health departments who are thinking about reopening schools in the fall.
These guidelines—which are not to be confused with previously issued requirements governing schools when they do decide to open their doors—use COVID-19 infection rates to break the state into three tiers: High Risk, Moderate Risk, and Low Risk.
We'll explain those categories in a second, but here's the bottom line: Most of the state falls into high or moderate risk areas, so most of the state's students should not return to school for in-person instruction this fall. That includes high-population counties such as King, Pierce, and Snohomish.
According to the guidelines, High Risk areas include counties with more than 75 cases per 100,000 residents. Twenty-five counties fall into this category at the moment, including King, Snohomish, Pierce, Spokane, and Yakima. "Schools in these counties should strongly consider distance learning, with the option for limited in-person instruction in small groups for the students with the highest need—such as students with disabilities. We would also strongly recommend canceling or postponing all in-person extracurricular activities, including sports and the performing arts," the guidance reads.
Moderate Risk areas include counties with between 25 and 75 cases per 100,000 people. Nine counties currently fit into this category, including Clark and Whatcom. In these counties, the state recommends canceling in-person extracurriculars and implementing remote learning for "most middle and high school students, with possible in-person learning options for elementary students and those with special needs."
Low Risk areas include counties with an infection rate of 25 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. Only five counties fit that description right now: Asotin, Garfield, Jefferson, San Juan, and Wahkiakum. The state still "initially encourage[s] a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning for middle and high school students, and full-time in-person learning for all elementary students."
After some initially considered hybrid models, many school districts west of the mountains, including Seattle Public Schools, already plan to conduct classes remotely at the beginning of the year, and they each have their own complicated and hotly contested plans for doing so. The state guidance basically offers these districts more clarity on when they can think about bringing kids back. But until more people start wearing masks and stop partying with their friends on the weekend, it's not looking like that'll happen anytime soon.
To help facilitate Zoom school, the Governor also authorized $8.8 million in federal CARES Act funds to provide a year of internet for “tens of thousands of families” who are eligible for free and reduced lunch, but only in areas that already have internet access. In Seattle, 5% of households don't have the internet, and low-income households are "five to seven times more likely to lack that access." The state is currently working on a study to figure out how many students in Washington are working without broadband, but a national Pew study shows "some 15% of U.S. households with school-age children do not have a high-speed internet connection at home."
Inslee says merely recommending these guidelines rather than mandating them represents "the right approach" that's "consistent" with the state's "traditional" relationship with local school boards. His support for local control on this issue makes sense, he argued, due to the high degree of "variability [in outbreaks and infection rates] in different communities."