SPOKANE, Wash — Interim Spokane Health Officer Dr. Frank Velazquez announced his support on Thursday for school districts to allow phasing in third through fifth graders for in-person learning starting in mid-January.
The announcement comes just one day after Governor Jay Inslee lowered the bar for schools to bring students back into classrooms.
In a press release from the Spokane Regional Health District, Velazquez said schools in Spokane County have been working closely with SRHD to develop plans for the eventual return of all elementary grades to in-person learning.
“We’re watching the data closely and will include specific expectations of the school districts within our guidance. The intent of these expectations is to assure the community of the school district’s ability to safely manage the additional student body while maintaining pandemic health measures,” Velazquez said in the release. “We feel confident in the plans these school districts have developed.”
In order to phase elementary students back into classrooms, districts must meet certain criteria that includes, but is not limited to, case data evaluations at the district level; ability to maintain contact tracing with a larger student body; a minimum of two-week evaluation periods in-between the phasing in of each grade; and appropriate resources to keep up cleaning and sanitizing requirements, according to the press release. Schools will also have to be prepared to pause phasing in additional grades at any time is data supports the decision.
Velazquez said in-person learning addresses needs for social and emotional learning and skill development, concerns of child safety and academic inequities for those with limited technology, the press release stated.
“The collective responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19 remains,” Velazquez said in the press release. “If we want to move forward with in-person learning, we all need to work together by following the health measures and by receiving the vaccine when it’s available to you.”
Inslee's new recommendations said that in counties where COVID-19 cases are less than 50 per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period, school districts should make in-person learning available to all students.
In counties where cases are between 50 and 350 per 100,000 residents, districts should phase in in-person learning, starting with elementary students not already attending in person and middle school students, Inslee said.
In counties where COVID-19 cases are greater than 350 per 100,000 residents, Inslee recommended districts only offer in-person learning for elementary students and those with the highest needs in small groups of 15 students or fewer. Other students would stay on remote learning.
Under Inslee's new recommendations, older students should be the last groups to return to in-person learning because high school-age students are more susceptible to catching and transmitting the coronavirus, Inslee said.
Over the summer, Inslee recommended that if COVID-19 cases were more than 75 per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period in a given county, schools should move to remote learning only and cancel or postpone extracurricular activities.
Guidelines from the state Department of Health (DOH) previously recommended that full-time, in-person instruction should only resume when COVID-19 cases in a county are at or below 25 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period.
Representatives from the DOH were present during Inslee's announcement Wednesday and backed up the governor's recommendations.
Inslee, as well as other school leaders, cited the mental health of students and helping students with disabilities as key reasons for bringing more students back to in-person learning.
Inslee also announced Wednesday he is allocating $3 million in CARES Act funding towards implementing health and safety measures in schools. Those funds will be distributed by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
The governor also said the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) will designate a single point of contact to serve as a liaison for school workplace safety questions and concerns. That person will be from the Division of Occupational Safety and Health within L&I.
KING 5 staff contributed to this report