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'We cannot guarantee that school will open in fall,' Washington Gov. Inslee says

Washington state's superintendent said he expected schools to open for in-person instruction in the fall of 2020.

SPOKANE, Wash. — While releasing guidance for the 2020-2021 school year in Washington state, Superintendent Chris Reykdal said he expects schools to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall. 

“To be very clear, it is my expectation that schools will open this fall for in-person instruction," he wrote in a letter to school district leaders throughout the state. 

On Thursday morning, the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released guidance for reopening schools after months of coronavirus closures. A panel of 123 people, including some from eastern Washington, worked to develop it. 

The guidance includes a mask requirement for all students and staff in K-12 settings. 

In order to meet state Department of Health guidelines, some schools may reopen in the fall with a hybrid of face-to-face or online instruction, Reykdal said. All districts will also need an alternative plan to return to fully remote learning if local health authorities or Gov. Jay Inslee mandate future closures. 

"Changing health conditions in a county or region may cause a local health authority or even the Governor to have to reconsider this opportunity to open, but the primary planning of most districts should be a presumption of a fall opening," Reykdal wrote. 

Inslee also reiterated the need to reassess plans to reopen schools if coronavirus cases spike or spread in Washington. 

"We cannot guarantee that school will open in fall. But for now, this guidance provides a path that schools, educators and families need to plan for the coming months and the fall," Inslee said. "Kids need to be learning but they also need to be safe and healthy.”

The Washington Education Association, which represents teachers in the state, released a statement after the state's announcement. In the statement, WEA President Larry Delaney voiced concern over the state's safety efforts, saying "we questions if social distancing guidelines can truly be met in many schools across our state, given typical class sizes."

Guidance from the OSPI says schools should not allow students, staff, vendors, parents guardians or guests on-site if they are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or have been in close contact with someone who has a confirmed or suspected case of the virus in the last 14 days.

Schools are also advised to check for signs of illness among all students and staff at entry every day. 

All students, staff, volunteers and guests are also required to wear cloth face coverings in K-12 settings.

Exceptions to the rule about cloth face coverings include: 

  • Those with a disability that prevents them from comfortably wearing or removing a face covering
  •  Those with certain respiratory conditions or trouble breathing
  • Those who are deaf or hard of hearing and use facial and mouth movements as part of communication
  • Those advised by a medical, legal, or behavioral health professional that wearing a face covering may pose a risk to that person

Students may also use face shields as an alternative to a cloth face covering, according to the guidance. Younger students must be supervised when wearing a face covering or shield and will need help putting them on an taking them off. 

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Guidance has not yet been released for high school sports, but the state is hoping to develop a plan in the next several weeks, Reykdal said. 

Schools are asked to maintain six feet of physical distancing within groups of students as much as possible. They should create space between students and reduce the amount of time they are close with each other. 

Schools may consider canceling field trips, assemblies and other large gatherings, canceling or modifying classes where students will be in close contact, suspending or significantly modifying activities that are considered high-risk, increasing the spaces between desks, staggering the release of classes and arrival/dismissal times, and limiting non-essential visitors.

Gatherings and potential mixing of classes or groups in the cafeteria or other communal spaces should also be limited. Under the guidance, schools should consider having students take their meals outside or in the class. If students are using the cafeteria, they should sit with their class or group. Mealtimes in lunchrooms or dining halls should also be staggered if possible. 

The full WEA statement on the Washington OPSI guidelines is replicated below:

"The health and safety of our school students, staff, and community remain our highest priority as we look toward the start of the 2020-2021 school year. We share the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s interest to return to school as close to normal as is possible, to the extent that it can be done safely. However, we question if social distancing guidelines can truly be met in many schools across our state, given typical class sizes.

The OSPI recommendations, paired with those from the Departments of Health and Labor and Industries, provide broad parameters that could allow our schools to open in a way that protects health and safety while recognizing the need for a hybrid model as a very real option in many areas. School districts must engage early with educators through our local unions to incorporate best practices and ensure equitable learning within the OSPI parameters.

WEA members share OSPI’s commitment to ensuring a more equitable education for students who in our former models have been left behind. Both COVID and recent protests demand we do better; with distance learning likely to continue in some districts, we must create practical, achievable plans to effectively reach students of color, low-income populations, immigrants and English language learners, Special Education students, homeless students, foster youth or others for whom this system is not working. It is now critical that every school district superintendent work with educators and families to make sure equity concerns drive our actions.

WEA will work to ensure each of our districts are fully implementing the health and safety requirements. Now is not the time to reduce staff. Districts, the Legislature, and the federal government should add resources to address new needs for added staff to help with cleaning, with checking students’ temperatures, with helping teachers with social distancing, and with other safety tasks. School staff, with our vast classroom experience and expertise, need to drive decision-making around keeping our school communities safe.

Much work is still ahead. WEA will continue to fight for safety, full funding to in order to achieve these plans, and a continued role for educators as districts and local unions begin the difficult task of putting this guidance into practical terms for the benefit of students. We commend the work of the members of the OSPI workgroup and look forward to productive conversations with our districts.”

KREM's Amanda Roley contributed to this report.

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