An announcement that Washington schools should plan to be open for in-person learning in the fall is a welcome development.
Not only does in-person learning provide educational and social benefits that cannot be replicated online, but the decision provides some assurances for parents and guardians. The coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty of school schedules has played havoc with child care and work plans.
To mitigate that added stress, state officials last week said they have instructed schools to prepare for welcoming all students into buildings for the 2021-2022 school year. Remote learning still will be available to families that need it, and flexibility still will be required from administrators who have spent the past year adjusting and readjusting schedules, protocols and safety measures.
“Schools play such a key role in child and family well-being,” said Lacy Fehrenbach of the state Department of Health. “They are foundational to child growth, development, learning and health. We’ve learned over the past year that schools are very good at implementing these health and safety measures, which limit transmission and protect the students, staff and their families.”
Most schools have been working on hybrid schedules, with students sharing time between in-class and remote learning. Detailed guidelines for a full opening are being worked out, and individual districts and schools will adjust protocols to their own needs. But much has been learned about schools and coronavirus transmission since the outbreak of the disease 14 months ago.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, recently scaled back distancing guidelines. After recommending that students remain 6 feet apart in class, officials now say 3 feet is adequate; a distance of 6 feet still is recommended in halls and common areas. Washington schools will be asked to prepare two plans — one that meets these requirements, and another with no social distancing limits.
CDC guidelines also have focused on properly wearing masks, washing hands, cleaning facilities and improving ventilation. Fehrenbach said, “These measures do greatly help reduce the risk of transmission in schools and in the broader community.”
The most unsung of those is adequate ventilation; coronavirus, after all, is airborne. Local school districts have COVID-related ventilation information posted on their websites, with Vancouver Public Schools stating: “Heating and cooling systems will be set to allow for maximum airflow. Windows will be opened to allow for natural ventilation to enter spaces. Buildings will be flushed daily in the early morning to let in outside air.”
Children have proven to be less likely to contract coronavirus and less likely to suffer severe symptoms. But they still carry the potential for spreading the disease to family members, and COVID variants might present additional risk to younger age groups.
Administrators and state officials have spent more than a year studying the dangers of the disease and how best to fully open schools, and last week’s announcement is a relief for parents. With one month remaining in the current school year, plans for child care and work in the fall already are being made.
With vaccines showing effectiveness in controlling the disease and the Pfizer vaccine receiving emergency federal approval for 12- to 15-year-olds, there is hope that schools will look somewhat normal in the fall.