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Washington schools reopening closely tied to COVID-19 prevention outside the classroom

Both schools and the public will need to continue preventative measures to curb outbreaks if communities hope for students to return to classrooms in the fall.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — No one really knows what school will look like in the fall, after the coronavirus pandemic forced students across Washington and the U.S. to abruptly move to distance learning.

So the big question remains – what will the new school year look like, and is a return to in-person classrooms even possible?

A new model examines what could work – and what might not.

A report called “Schools are not islands: we must mitigate community transmission to reopen schools” was published by the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling. It was shared Wednesday by state and county health officials.

Using data from King County, the Institute for Disease Modeling simulated various scenarios and strategies for reopening schools, along with varying levels of community activity outside school. Hybrid models, such as staggered start times and a mix of physical and remote learning were not included in the data.

"The more conservative we are with reopening in the workplace and community and the more proactive we are with testing and contact tracing, the more likely it is that we will be able to reopen schools," the paper's authors wrote. "Community-wide mitigation efforts must improve significantly prior to school reopening."

It’s based on King County data, but researchers believe it could apply more widely.

The idea is that preventative measures inside schools can help control and limit the spread of coronavirus.

They call for “a combination of mask usage, physical distancing, hygiene measures, classroom cohorting, and symptomatic screening, testing and tracing of students and teachers” according to the report.

Even with preventive measures, students would need to be screened for symptoms daily, according to the Department of Health.

However, if viral activity remains too high in the community at large, these methods will be overwhelmed, the authors concluded.

Researchers believe a return to 70% of pre-COVID mobility could allow schools to open with preventative measures, but resuming 80% of activity would be too much.

RELATED: Inslee: Reopening schools could mean rolling back 'Safe Start' phases

Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, of Seattle – King County Public Health, called the report “sobering” on a call with reporters.

Duchin said there’s currently too much transmission to support school reopenings. Other officials on the call renewed their pleas for people to closely follow health guidelines, and wear masks as mandated in Washington.

“It reflects the intense interdependence that we have one another in this community in order to move forward safely,” Duchin said.

He also called for a "reset," to get cases of the virus trending in the right direction – down.

Duchin said people became too relaxed with preventative measures ever since restrictions started to ease under Gov. Jay Inslee's "Safe Start" plan. 

Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, agreed.

“We have very little optimism as a rule across the state,” Delaney said.

He echoed state and county officials, saying the public-at-large has the power to control the virus, by observing social distancing measures whenever possible, and wearing masks and face coverings.

“It doesn’t matter what sort of policies or provisions school districts put in place for health and safety,” he said. “If families and communities aren’t practicing good public health and safety either, it just doesn’t make a difference.”

Delaney said he didn't believe that schools would be able to return to in-person instruction by the fall.

He said WEA wants to see districts invest in equitable, accountable distance learning solutions if the practice must continue longer-term.

Gov. Inslee previously said counties may have to step down to more-restrictive "Safe Start" phases to reopen schools.

Districts have until mid-August to formulate re-opening plans, and many are discussing partial returns to the classroom, mixed with online instruction.

RELATED: Washington schools hesitant to open in the fall despite pressure from White House

RELATED: Seattle Public Schools look at preliminary plan to reopen in the fall

RELATED: Snohomish County parents have mixed reactions to in-school learning in the fall