Recognizing that schools have not proven to be superspreaders of coronavirus, Gov. Jay Inslee last month uttered the words many Washington parents and students have longed to hear: “It is time to begin the process of getting more of our students back in the classroom.”
In announcing relaxed restrictions on the opening of public schools, Inslee stressed that decisions will remain in the hands of local school boards. Districts in Clark County are preparing plans for welcoming more students for in-person learning, balancing those desires with protocols for mask-wearing and social distancing.
“We are in the business of serving young people and they need us right now,” said Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent of public instruction. “And we can do this safely.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic led schools and businesses to be shut down in March, Inslee has vowed to follow the science surrounding COVID-19. That science indicates that schools can, indeed, be opened safely.
With most local districts providing some in-building instruction, Clark County Public Health lists one active outbreak — five cases among staff members in the Washougal School District.
Nationally, Duke University’s Sallie Permar reports: “What we haven’t seen are superspreader events. The fear that you’d have one infected kid come to school, and then you’d have many other kids and teachers and relatives (at home) get infected — that hasn’t happened.”
The Mayo Clinic reports, “Most kids who are infected typically don’t become as sick as adults and some might not show any symptoms at all.”
That is encouraging news, but caution is warranted. Increasing the number of students in class will put teachers and staff members at risk, expanding the chances they will become infected and bring the disease home with them. Bill Beville, president of the Evergreen Education Association, said staff members “do not feel we’re there yet, and the district still has some work to do.”
All of that must be balanced with a desire to have students return to class — most likely on a hybrid schedule that incorporates some remote learning. Many districts have adopted that model, particularly for elementary schools, and an estimated 15 percent of Washington students were receiving some in-class instruction prior to Christmas break.
That has been problematic. Various reports from across the country show that remote learning has led to fewer students reaching benchmarks for reading and other educational attainment. And the data indicate that young students and those with limited internet access are particularly impacted.
Equally important, having students at home plays havoc with the schedules of parents who work outside the home.
Inslee said: “Many people’s lives revolve around a regular school schedule and, apart from the academics, schools provide social supports that advance healthy childhood development.”
In creating plans to invite increased numbers of students into the classroom, district officials must engage with educators and parents. There have been good reasons for limiting in-class learning in the face of a previously unknown disease, and there are good reasons for wanting to further open schools.
There is no simple solution. Effectively educating children also requires healthy teachers and parents. But Inslee is correct to give schools more options for how to best serve their community.