New recommendations for what school will look like at the start of the 2020-2021 school year would have the majority of students in Washington beginning lessons online, as Gov. Jay Inslee announced new guidance for districts as the upcoming school year approaches.
During a press conference Wednesday, Aug. 5, Inslee announced the recommendations, which strongly favor distance learning in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. Inslee said what was announced was not not legally-binding, “but (they) are strong recommendations and they are based on science. They are based on the health of our children.”
The recommendations came in three tiers based on recent infection rates relative to a county’s population. High-risk counties had infection rates of 75 or greater per 100,000 of population in the past two weeks, and were recommended to have distance learning across the board with limited in-person instruction only for students with highest need.
The moderate-risk tier included counties that had 25 or more cases per 100,000 in a two-week period, and were recommended to have distance learning for middle and high school students while allowing the possibility for in-person instruction for elementary students.
For both moderate and high-risk counties the state is recommending canceling or postponing all in-person extracurricular activities.
The low-risk tier — which included only five counties as of the press conference — had below 25 cases per 100,000 in a two-week period, and carried a recommendation of a hybrid in-person and distance learning combination for middle and high school students, with full-time in-person instruction for elementary students.
As of Aug. 4, Lewis County was in the high-risk tier while Clark, Cowlitz and Thurston counties were in the moderate-risk tier, according to information from the state.
Inslee said that regardless of the prevalence of the spread of the disease, school administrations should be prepared to respond to any potential outbreaks of the disease in their districts.
Inslee said that the rate of spread of COVID-19 currently did not merit a broader reopening of school buildings in the fall. He said that states and countries that had made more broad returns to in-person instruction had less COVID-19 activity than Washington is currently experiencing, adding that states such as Georgia and Mississippi had already seen outbreaks from their own attempts at reopening schools.
Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said that the recommendations announced were in line with prior guidance given in June regarding preventative measures required in the classroom once buildings reopen. Hand washing, physical distancing and use of facial coverings would be an “essential and mandatory” aspect of any restart of in-person instruction.
Compared to when the original guidance was given, cases and deaths from COVID-19 have been on the rise. The superintendent said he, the governor’s office and the state Department of Health have received requests from educators for more specifics for how to safely reopen. The most recent recommendations give thresholds on when districts should consider moving toward reopening their buildings.
Reykdal said recently $2.5 million has been designated for training for creating consistency among learning platforms for educators. Acknowledging that connectivity in some populations was a challenge, Inslee said the state would be distributing $8.8 million in federal CARES Act funding to help low-income families buy internet plans.
“We are a long ways ahead of where we were last spring,” Reykdal remarked.
Reykdal said there was a flexible interpretation of what an instructional hour was for purposes of meeting legal requirements, assuring that students would not have to be in front of screens for eight hours a day. He added that the reprieve from federal assessments was not currently renewed for another year, meaning students should be prepared for Smarter Balanced tests in the 2020-2021 school year.
Although much of the activity in Washington counties has been dictated by the four-phase Safe Start Washington reopening plan, Inslee explained that school districts had a different process given the historical decision-making authority local school boards had over their respective jurisdictions.
“This has been a traditional way of making decisions of this nature,” Inslee said.
Inslee acknowledged that the changes in instruction were challenging, “but we believe these recommendations are fully supported by our love for our children, our understanding that they can cause infection in their families themselves, and the best science available to us.”