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Eastern Washington school leaders want to reduce 6-foot social distancing rule

School leaders said they have been successful in balancing a need to be distant and the need to be together by following guidelines set by local health officials.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Dozens of school leaders in Washington signed a letter to Governor Jay Inslee and Department of Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah asking for flexibility when it comes to social distancing in schools.

The letter was signed by members of the NorthEast Washington Educational Service District 101, which helps serve the interests of school districts and private schools in Adams, Ferry, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens and Whitman counties. It is the state’s largest ESD in number of districts, counties and geographic regions served.

Spokane Public Schools is a member of the NorthEast Washington Educational Service District 101 but Superintendent Adam Swinyard did not sign the letter. KREM reached out to SPS for a statement but has not heard back. 

In the letter, school leaders said they have been successful in balancing a need to be distant and the need to be together by following guidelines set by local health jurisdictions. They say that as they plan for the 2021-2022 school year, they request that the governor and health secretary consider flexibility with the requirement of six feet of physical distancing.

School leaders cite the American Academy of Pediatrics article that says, “In many school settings, 6 feet between students is not feasible without drastically limiting the number of students. Some countries have been able to successfully reopen schools after first controlling community-wide spread of SARS-CoV-2 while using 3 feet of distance between students without increases in community spread.”

The article goes on to say schools should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative.

“We understand, support and will continue to follow all of the mitigation factors we continue to implement and require – and with flexibility as described by the AAP – we will be able to safely accommodate all of our students, and provide them the quality of learning and teaching they need and deserve, and to which we are sincerely committed,” the letter reads.

Michael Dunn, the superintendent of NorthEast Washington Educational Service District 101, explained that the request needs to be addressed soon because it partly correlates with teacher contracts expiring this year. He added that many school districts are also discussing plans for all students to return to in-person learning next year. 

"A superintendent shared on our weekly call this morning [that] they're going to bring all their fourth and fifth graders back after spring break," Dunn said. "In order to do that and meet six feet of physical distancing, they're going to have to hire additional teachers. So, in order to plan both space and staffing, we really need to have this information which is kind of why they wanted us to start now."

The second part of the letter includes a first-hand account of what the last year of teaching has been like from school leaders in 17 different districts and private schools.

READ SCHOOL LEADERS' ACCOUNTS HERE