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Washington allows 3-foot distancing, but Spokane schools may not see changes right away

The logistics of changing social distancing protocols may delay response from larger school districts in Washington.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced on Thursday that state requirements for social distancing in schools are being reduced from 6 feet to just 3 feet, effective immediately.

However, in practice most local students are unlikely to see change immediately, especially in larger districts. Inslee said the decision is ultimately up to individual districts; those that want to retain the 6-foot spacing requirement can do so. 

Spokane County's two largest districts, Spokane Public Schools and Central Valley School District, both indicated to KREM that their respective boards and administrations will need to review their options and make a decision at a later date. The president of the Spokane Education Association, the union representing local educators, told KREM there is quite a lot to assess.

"A layperson might say: oh you're going from 6 feet to 3 feet. You just shove a desk and a kid in between those two dots! Pretty simple! And it's far more complicated than that," said Jeremy Shay.

Shay says implementing the current 6-foot protocols took a lot of time and manpower, and changing them up would too.

"I know in the governor's press release, it's like you could implement this tomorrow," he said. "Well in a district this size, with all the modifications, the changes that we put in place to get back to in-person... any small change like this presents a whole host of logistical questions that have to be answered."

For one, the physical requirements of getting more students in classrooms would create a huge burden for a custodial staff that's already burdened with severe sanitation measures.

"We took furniture out of rooms to make space for this," said Shay. "So you're talking about have to return furniture back to buildings that's been put into storage."

Shay says this also creates new questions for how to handle student transportation, and could possibly make contact tracing more difficult.

Beyond all that, districts will also have to navigate the myriad exceptions to the 3-foot rule. Inslee said today 6-foot distancing is still required in common areas, or while doing activities that require heavy breathing like sports or music, or while eating. A lot of that currently happens in the classrooms.

"You wouldn't really be able to adjust that spacing to three feet, because they have to eat there," said Shay.

So although it seems like a simple change, Shay says sorting all this out and actually implementing it could take nearly to the end of the school year, at which point he wonders whether it's worth it for kids who have already endured so much upheaval.

"One more change, while it seems like a simple one, is asking a lot of a system that's been in what seems like a constant state of change over the course of the school year," he said.

SEA has not explicitly come out against making these changes. Shay said there are simply many questions that need to be addressed with the district. However, it's clear that at least for larger districts, 3-foot distancing might not be implemented for some time.