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Washington governor announces new guidance for schools

Governor Jay Inslee said it's time to get more kids back in the classroom, safely, through a new phased-in approach to in-person learning.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — On Wednesday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced new guidance for schools in the state.

He said it's time to get more kids back in the classroom, safely through a new phased-in approach to in-person learning.

Inslee said the decision was based on new data from institutions like MIT, Brown University, Harvard, and other experts in Washington. He said state officials didn’t have all that data six months ago, or even three months ago.

He showed a graph outlining the risk of infection among various groups of students. According to the bar graph, the level of risk among remote learners was similar to students attending in-person school with safety protocols.

"We’re confident that these risks are reasonable again, as long as we adhere to safety measures, like wearing masks, maintaining six feet of physical distance, increasing cleaning, improved ventilation,” said Inslee.

He said COVID-19 outbreaks in schools have been relatively small, even in counties with higher COVID activity. 

Lacy Fehrenbach, with the Washington Department of Health, said half of the outbreaks in schools this fall consisted of three or fewer cases. In addition, Fehrenbach said there are a growing number of studies that suggest school safety measures to be effective. Based on all that information, the governor approved new health metric recommendations.

“Once the required safety measures are in place, when COVID cases represent less than 50 residents per 100,000 in the district, in-person learning should be available to all students,” Inslee said.

If there are greater than 50 cases, but less than 350, districts are encouraged to phase in in-person learning starting with middle school students. If COVID cases are above that 350 threshold, Inslee said districts can bring in elementary students and those with high needs in small groups of no more than 15.

Inslee said state officials recommend beginning with the youngest students and those with the highest needs first, with older students being among the last to return to in-person learning. He said that’s because older students are more similar to adults in terms of how they can catch and transmit the virus.

Inslee said bringing high schoolers back into the classroom is not recommended before areas see a plateau and decrease in cases.

“These parts of our plan are recommendations as to when to return more students, they are not requirements. As governor, I have the authority to close schools, actually the Department of Health [has authority] for emergencies […] I do not have the statutory authority to make them reopen,” said Inslee.

Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell also attended the press conference with the governor.

“Over the course of the last few months, we’ve been able to increase incrementally, the number of students that are getting in-person experiences,” Snell said.

He said having small groups of students come for in-person learning this fall was daunting at first.

“Then you start to realize the mitigation strategies are in there for a reason and it’s doable,” said Snell.

Governor Inslee said the state’s safety protocols, like mask-wearing and social distancing, have to be followed in order for schools to bring kids in for in-person learning.

He also said $3 million from the CARES Act will go toward helping schools come up with safety plans.