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Most students in Washington should resume remote learning in the fall, Inslee says

The "vast majority of the population" in the state has high or moderate risk of coronavirus spread, and in-class instruction could make it worse, officials said.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The vast majority of students in Washington will be returning to distance learning or online learning in the fall, as the state released recommendations for reopening schools.

Most districts are in communities at high- or moderate-risk of coronavirus transmission, Gov. Jay Inslee said.

Students throughout Washington state might be learning online or in-person according to the level of COVID activity in their communities and the risk associated with the spread.

He cited areas, including as the state of Georgia and the country of Israel, where schools have reopened and then the coronavirus spread accelerated.

"If every school district brought all students back for in-person instruction today, I think we would see a meaningful and real dangerous increase in COVID activity," Inslee said.

Inslee announced the general guidelines at a press conference on Wednesday but it will be up to local districts and local health officials to decide how students will learn.

Though the state announced guidelines, they are recommendations and not requirements, and local school and health officials will make the decision.

He said that there are many variables, even within districts and counties, to consider.

"That one-size-fits-all is sometimes difficult to apply," he said. "Our recommendations, without the necessity of a fiat or a legal requirement, are going to be followed. The vast majority of districts are consistent with our recommendation." 

Inslee also said that districts should be committed to serving all the students equitably, including those without internet connection, students with disabilities, students of color and homeless students.

While districts were encouraged to be "innovative," the state's guideline "does allow on-site learning for these students, where there is no additional opportunities," he said.

The governor was joined by Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Dr. Kathy Lofy, state health officer.

Reykdal said that districts had requested the guidance on the safety of returning to in-person instruction.

"Doing this is a way that's slow and strategic, and allows us to monitor health conditions," he said.

State officials said the main recommendation is to move to a mostly online or remote learning mode if COVID-19 infection rates are high in a given area.

According to the state’s recommendations, 25 counties are in the high-risk category (including King, Snohomish, Pierce, Spokane, Yakima); nine in the moderate-risk category (including Clark and Whatcom); and five in the low-risk category (Asotin, Garfield, Jefferson, San Juan, Wahkiakum).

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Moderate- and high-risk counties represent the vast majority of the population of Washington.

The state says it will provide a detailed list of counties and cases.

Officials said that the state is making recommendations and are not requirements. The state has previously released health requirements for reopening schools and those still must be observed when there is in-person instruction or the buildings are in use.

High Risk

• More than 75 cases per 100,000 residents. Schools in these counties should strongly consider distance learning, with the option for limited in-person instruction in small groups for the students with the highest need – such as students with disabilities. 

• Cancelling or postponing all in person extracurricular activities is strongly recommended, including sports and the performing arts.

Moderate Risk

• Counties with cases in the range of 25 to 75 per 100,000. Districts should consider distance learning for most middle and high school students, with possible in-person learning options for elementary students and those with special needs. These are the students who most need in-person instruction.

• The state urges districts to consider canceling n-person extracurricular activities, and consider resuming low-risk activities when more students have returned to the classroom.

Low Risk

• The rate of infection is less than 25 cases per 100,000 over a two-week period. There are currently five counties that qualify.

• These are considered low risk, but we would still initially encourage a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning for middle and high school students, and full-time in-person learning for all elementary students.

The state urges local school leaders and local public health leaders at all levels to monitor for and respond to suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

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