SEATTLE —With only about three weeks left before school starts, Washington school districts, including Seattle, are gearing up for another year of masks, social distancing and contact tracing as most children return to the classroom — some, for the first time in 18 months.
Since a majority of kids eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine haven’t gotten the shot yet, according to state health officials, avoiding the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant is a top priority.
Every school district will be expected to provide full-time in-person learning to all students who want it, and masks will still be required for students and staff — or districts risk an “immediate” halt to their funding, according to state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal. Private schools must also adhere to the ongoing state school mask order, a continuation of the mask requirement from last school year.
Washington is one of a handful of states — including Oregon and California — requiring masks for everyone in school, regardless of vaccination status. Students and staff are not required to wear them outdoors.
Mask mandates have been controversial in other parts of the country, including Texas and Arizona, where they are prohibited. Opposition has also flared in Washington: In the Central Valley School District just outside of Spokane, the front-runners for an open school board seat — one of them a faculty nurse educator at Washington State University — say they oppose the CDC’s universal school masking guidelines, according to The Spokesman Review.
“Let me be clear,” Reykdal wrote in a memo to school district superintendents late last week. “(School) boards or districts that intentionally disobey, dismiss, or shun an explicit law, including a Governor’s executive order, which has the power of law, will see an immediate halt to their basic education apportionment, and their federal funds that come through” the state education department.
School districts and unions have been negotiating the terms of this new school year, including in Seattle, where the teachers union has objected to the district’s decision not to provide a virtual- learning option for older students.
Some negotiations statewide have resulted in delays for classes throughout the pandemic — and that’s still a possibility this summer. Seattle teachers union president Jennifer Matter said Friday the district’s bargaining teams were were prepared to work through this weekend to come to an agreement by Monday.
In cases of outbreaks, the latest guidance from state health officials clarifies that students and staff who have been vaccinated and show no symptoms do not need to leave school.
Vaccinations are not required for students or staff. But there is a chance the state may consider a mandate for schoolchildren once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves a vaccine. Nearly all of Washington’s public universities have announced vaccine mandates, with some exceptions for personal, medical or religious reasons.
As for social distancing, state guidelines currently advise school districts to plan for 3 or more feet of distance between people in a classroom — or whatever space can be maintained without restricting access to instruction.
More school guidance from the state is expected in the coming weeks related to performing arts and sports activities, according to a Department of Health spokesperson.
Local districts haven’t fully fleshed out every detail of what school will look like in the fall. Some are planning to offer online-only options, with limited spaces. And negotiations with labor unions are still underway in districts such as Seattle, where classes are slated to begin on Sept. 1.
Many school districts signed agreements with unions that sunset this fall. Now they are bargaining anew about recurring topics, including safety measures and virtual learning, said Julie Popper, a spokesperson for the Washington Education Association, the state teachers union.
As was the case throughout the entirety of the last school year, these discussions could potentially swell into larger disagreements. Bargaining can “definitely” delay school district reopening plans, said Popper.
“Nothing is in stone and the priority is student and community safety,” Popper said. “If that means a last minute pivot I think everyone is willing to do that.”
By this time last year, SPS began to signal that the start of school could be delayed. Fall term was eventually pushed back two days to allow teachers more time to train on remote learning platforms. That move was announced on Aug. 17, 2020, a little over two weeks before the scheduled start of school.
It’s unclear if negotiations will stall this year — as they have in pre-pandemic years — or if there will be an adjustment to the start of school. Matter, the Seattle Education Association president, said she wants negotiations wrapped by this Monday.
“Waiting until the last week before school starts is not acceptable. We have been telling [the district] we want to be finished,” said Matter.
But on Thursday, the union released a statement chiding the district for backing out of providing a virtual-only option for middle and high school students.
“We know that a disproportionate number of families choosing the virtual option were families of color and we feel that it is fully within the purview and the responsibility of SPS to meet these students’ needs,” the statement said, calling the virtual option “a critical piece of this equitable, safe education for students in elementary, middle, and high school.”
Matter said the union was negotiating with the district to make online learning accessible to all grades, a union priority, but instead Seattle schools “pulled out of negotiations and prematurely announced the elimination of the secondary virtual option without informing us at the bargaining table.”
Matter declined to share the details of the current negotiations, but noted that the union and district have been working on two agreements — one related to online learning, and the other for safety measures.
“If the district is willing to put things in writing what they say out loud, I don’t think we’re going to have any delay,” she said.
Only about 200 Seattle Public Schools students chose an online learning option, district spokesperson Tim Robinson said. Online learning is offered for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and Robinson said district staff are reaching out to the families with older children who opted for online learning to give them other options.
Only 163 Lake Washington School District students opted to stay online the upcoming school year, said district spokesperson Shannon Parthemer. The Bellevue School District doesn’t have firm numbers on students choosing the virtual option, but the majority of students are expected to return to classrooms, district spokesperson Janine Thorn said.
In Seattle, the district is focused on giving younger children online learning options because vaccinations aren’t available for children under 12. After this year, the district will evaluate if online learning should be expanded to other grades.