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New guidelines lower the bar for Washington schools to bring students back into classrooms

Gov. Inslee's new recommendations say when COVID-19 cases are less than 50 per 100,000 residents, schools should make in-person learning available to all students.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee has issued new recommendations that lower the threshold for when school districts in Washington can return to more in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also announced more funding for schools.

"I know some would have liked to see this sooner, but we have data and research now that we did not have six months ago," said Inslee during the announcement Wednesday, where he was joined by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, as well as other education and health leaders.

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.

"There is risk in returning to campuses, but we are confident now that the risks will be mitigated as long as there is adherence to health and safety measures, like wearing masks, maintaining six feet of physical distance, increased cleaning and improved ventilation," said Inslee.

RELATED: It could be more than 6 months before the COVID-19 vaccine is available for all Washingtonians

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.

Joseph and Nelya Calev said for their two sons who attend Interlake High School in Bellevue, remote learning has been a struggle.

"One of the sons is basically, he is on the verge of failing. It’s been painful having to police him to get him to stay awake during his classes," said Joseph Calev. "I really feel for him because he is not getting an education."

Nelya Calev added, "We are failing these kids. We are full-blown failing them."

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 said the latest data on the coronavirus has shown schools have not contributed substantially to the spread of COVID-19 so far.

"We have had a few infections in our schools, but most have been relatively small with two to five cases, including in counties where COVID activity is far higher than we want it to be," said Inslee.

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.

RELATED: Washington schools superintendent uses foul language to describe pandemic's impact on education

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.

The Washington Education Association (WEA) issued a statement following Inslee's announcement that said, "The trust and confidence that we can safely return to school is something that must be earned. It would have been easier to build that trust with educators with more communications in advance from the Governor about these pending changes.

"We agree with the Governor that the spotlight should be on L&I safety requirements, which are key for building trust with educators, students and families. Districts must meet those requirements on day one. We need to know that there is adequate PPE, distancing, ventilation, an active and trained safety committee in each building, effective plans for contact tracing, testing and clear communications regarding protocols for what happens when a case is detected in school.

"Implementing these guidelines in areas where school is still remotely operating will take time. We are concerned that the way these changes were rolled out implies that school can resume before there is time to put these safety measures in place.

"WEA’s focus will be to advocate that these requirements are fully in place before any expansion of in-person teaching and learning."

RELATED: Remote learning in remote locations: Washington students without internet options face challenges