- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2020

SEATTLE (AP) - Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is loosening school reopening guidelines amid a resurging coronavirus pandemic and pleading with reluctant teachers to return to the classroom, particularly those tasked with educating the youngest and neediest students.

“It is our hope that people will have a fair-minded look at the evidence that (shows) this is good for their educational commitment and their students,” Inslee said of teachers.

The governor acknowledged he’d have to win some teachers over and said he would consider their safety concerns and risk factors as the state rolls out its COVID-19 vaccine program, but he stopped short of committing to have teachers jump ahead in the line.

Inslee, a Democrat, unveiled the state’s latest reopening standards on Wednesday, which urge schools to begin phasing in in-person learning no matter what the community COVID-19 infection rates are, and to resist reverting back to remote learning should transmissions further increase.

That’s a stark departure for his administration, which has until now taken a more cautious approach.

Inslee stressed that his recommendations are not enforceable orders and that the ultimate decision on how and when to reopen schools is up to individual districts.

Washington state saw the nation’s first confirmed virus case in late January. The governor on April 6 issued an emergency order to keep schools across the state closed through the end of the school year, and in the fall, pushed most schools to remain online-only.

The new metrics say communities with the highest COVID-19 activity, where test positivity exceeds 10%, should phase in in-person instruction by limiting learning groups to 15 students. Students in pre-Kindergarten through 3rd grade, and students in any grade who may struggle with disabilities, homelessness or other socioeconomic disadvantages should be prioritized before adding 4th and 5th graders. No in-person extra-curricular activities are recommended.

Those in moderate-risk areas, where the test positivity rate is between 5% and 10%, should prioritize both elementary and middle schoolers, and allow extra-curriculars that meet safety standards.

And where positive testing rates are below 5%, the governor suggests high schoolers may return too.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has supported school reopening. The nation’s top infectious disease expert said in November spread “among children and from children is not really very big at all, not like one would have suspected. So let’s try to get the kids back, but let’s try to mitigate the things that maintain and just push the kind of community spread that we’re trying to avoid.”

Inslee’s hour-long press conference on Wednesday featured a parade of notable health and school officials, who uniformly spelled out concerns for the suffering of vulnerable children and their academic, social, emotional and mental needs during the global crisis. Only 15% of Washington state’s 1.2 million K-12 students are receiving any form of in-person instruction.

Inslee also profusely praised teachers as heroes yet his announcement didn’t feature comments from any working teachers.

The Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union, said it wasn’t consulted on the latest guidance and was only made aware of it hours before Inslee announced them publicly.

WEA president Larry Delaney said teachers were surprised and displeased by the new metrics, which lowers the bar for school reopening. The teachers union president also stressed the law requires safe working conditions before schools can reopen and that each school system would have to reconcile reopening plans with the reality of their local coronavirus infection rates.

“My hope is that school districts don’t take this announcement today as free rein to bring students back,” Delaney said.

Among the safety requirements schools must adhere in order to have in-person instruction: symptom screening, physical distancing, frequent hand washing and sanitizing, face coverings, increased cleaning and disinfection, improved ventilation, and systems in place for isolation, quarantine, testing and contact tracing. Schools should also designate COVID-19 coordinators and leaders.

“I am urging all districts, labor and management, to sit down immediately,” said state Superintendent Chris Reykdal.

Inslee said all evidence so far, both nationally and at school districts in the state that are allowing in-person learning, suggests a return to school can be safe even in high transmission areas when the right precautions are in place. The governor also announced $3 million in federal money that will be distributed to school districts to prepare for the return to classrooms.

While there’s no doubt that some increased transmission may occur as schools re-open, Inslee said when cases climb, schools should pause their phase-in process but shouldn’t revert back to remote learning.

“I would not have made this recommendation to any teacher unless I was willing to make it to my brother and my brother in law and my sister in law,” Inslee said of his family members who are or were classroom teachers. “It took me a while to come to this conclusion.”


Follow Sally Ho on Twitter at http://twitter.com/_sallyho

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