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Washington schools should plan for in-person learning this fall, state says

The Department of Health is expected to release new COVID-19 health and safety guidance for Washington schools later this week.

SEATTLE — Washington health leaders said Wednesday that K-12 schools should prepare for full-time, in-person learning this fall.

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) is expected to release COVID-19 health and safety guidance for the 2021-2022 school year later this week.

Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID-19 response for the DOH, said the upcoming guidance is intended to “help private and public K-12 schools operate safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The guidance will be released following this week’s federal vaccine advisory committee on immunization practices and the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup meetings so the DOH can address the latest on COVID-19 vaccines for children.

The guidance is being released far in advance of the next school year to help schools and families prepare for the fall. Fehrenbach stressed while new school guidance is coming, the existing guidance for the 2020-2021 school year is still in effect, and private and public schools should continue to follow that guidance.

RELATED: Washington health leaders urge patience as they await Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to be OK'd for teens

While the full guidance has not been released, Fehrenbach gave a “quick preview” of what to expect for K-12 summer and fall schools during a DOH briefing Wednesday morning.

According to Fehrenbach, the DOH will ask schools to plan to provide full-time, in-person instruction for all interested students with the following health and safety measures in place:

  • Universal and correct use of face coverings in the school community.
  • Promotion of handwashing and respiratory etiquette.
  • Ensuring healthy facilities with ventilation, cleaning, and infection control plans.
  • Being ready to respond to cases of COVID-19 when they happen. This includes reporting cases to public health, contact tracing, communicating with staff, families and school districts.
  • Supporting students who need instruction and are excluded from in-person learning due to illness or being in quarantine.

In addition, Fehrenbach said physical distancing is recommended, and schools should have two distancing plans prepared. The first plan includes the current recommended physical distancing of 3 feet in classrooms and 6 feet elsewhere during in-person instruction. Fehrenbach said the second plan should not include the physical distancing requirement.

“[The second plan] is partly because we are pretty far away from the school year in terms of pandemic times,” said Fehrenbach. “So, we’re asking schools to have both those plans and we’ll keep them posted over the summer as we monitor the science and the course of disease and vaccine updates in our state.”

RELATED: Washington adopts 3-foot distance rule in schools in line with CDC guidance

COVID-19 testing programs and vaccinations are “additional layers of prevention that [the DOH] recommends in schools, but not a requirement for providing in-person instruction at this time,” said Fehrenbach.

On Tuesday, the Washington State Board of Health issued a statement saying it had not discussed requiring COVID-19 vaccines for children in school settings.

“The State Board of Health may formally consider the topic should a vaccine be licensed and recommended by federal authorities. The State Board of Health reviews vaccines that are fully licensed by the FDA and recommended by ACIP. Currently, no COVID-19 vaccines meet this criteria. Once fully licensed COVID-19 vaccine(s) are recommended by ACIP, the Board could convene a technical advisory committee to review the vaccine(s) against the state’s immunization criteria. If the vaccine(s) passed the criteria and recommendations of the committee, the Board would consider adding it to the state’s list of required immunizations through a formal action to initiate rulemaking at a future Board meeting,” the statement says.

The Lake Washington, Tacoma Public Schools and Seattle school districts have all confirmed they plan to have students back in classrooms in the fall. Thursday morning, Seattle Public Schools plans to announce details on the plan to return to full-time in-person instruction in the fall.