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Washington State Superintendent asks Governor to remove mask mandate

Superintendent Chris Reykdal said with high immunity rates and rapid testing available it is now safe to remove masking rules.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal is asking the state Department of Health and Governor Inslee to remove the state mask mandate for students.

Reykdal said with high immunity rates and rapid testing available, now is the time to address masking in schools.

“As part of the transition from pandemic to endemic, I believe it is safe and timely to eliminate the statewide masking requirement for students and allow for a decision by local health officials. I recommend the Governor and Department of Health change the guidance to reflect this in the coming weeks,” Reykdal wrote.

Gov. Jay Inslee has not committed to a date when Washington could relax masking rules but said on Wednesday he plans to share a date next week for when it could happen. 

In an interview with KING 5 on Tuesday, Reykdal said now is a crucial turning point.

“The downside of wearing masks – whether it's speech therapy or learning or that social interaction, the frustration or all the discipline of teachers asking kids to put them up or the community frustration – those variables didn’t counter the health benefits in the beginning but now with vaccination those variables become more important,” Reykdal said.

Reykdal said there has been a steady call throughout the pandemic from school districts to remove the mask mandate, but now schools are able to point to high vaccination and low case rates as reasons why it makes sense.

Here is the full statement from Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal:

Throughout the pandemic, the Department of Health and Governor Inslee have set essential health and safety requirements for our schools using current data and research. Their leadership has helped Washington state to have some of the lowest rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations and mortalities in the nation.

The combination of widespread vaccinations and much higher infection acquired immunity due to the pervasive Omicron variant has changed the landscape of the pandemic once again. I believe it is time to carefully plan our move from a pandemic response to an endemic system of readiness.

With high immunity rates and our ability to carry out rapid antigen tests with nearly every school district participating in our state’s COVID-19 testing program, the time is now to rebalance the health and educational benefits of masking in our schools.

As part of the transition from pandemic to endemic, I believe it is safe and timely to eliminate the statewide masking requirement for students and allow for a decision by local health officials. I recommend the Governor and Department of Health change the guidance to reflect this in the coming weeks.

Cases and hospitalizations are expected to fall substantially in the coming weeks, and this gives us an opportunity to revisit the benefits and downsides to our current mitigation strategies, including universal masking in schools.

When there was limited or no access to vaccines or rapid tests and rates of hospitalizations and mortalities were high, mandatory face coverings were an essential part of the larger community mitigation strategy – masks worked! However, universal masking impacted the learning environment.

This is the nature of an ever-changing virus as it moves from highly impactful and unmitigated, to much less impactful and more treatable. This change will empower schools to better focus their valuable time on supporting our students’ learning and well-being recovery and acceleration.

As part of my recommendation to the Department of Health and the Governor, I expect schools will continue to have rapid tests on-site to quickly assess symptomatic students, staff, and close contacts. Those who test positive will continue to isolate and quarantine until their symptoms subside.

Current laws empower local health officials to assess health and safety risks and determine local strategies. Given the varied vaccination rates and adherence to other mitigation strategies across the regions in our state, it is time to return decision-making to local health officials. In some cases, local health officials may require temporary returns to masking or other mitigation strategies if cases spike or if a new variant poses elevated risks.

The tools to combat this virus today are dramatically better than the tools we had two years ago. I encourage every student and school employee to get their vaccination and booster to lower the risk of the virus. My recommendation today reflects my belief that the benefits of making this change outweigh the ongoing impacts on the learning environment as well as the challenges of maintaining a fixed statewide policy.

As a reminder, masks are still required in the school environment at this time per Department of Health requirements.

This is ultimately a decision of the Governor, with professional guidance from officials at the Department of Health, and I will uphold and respect their ultimate decision and guidance for our students and school personnel.

WATCH MORE: Former WSDOH employee files lawsuit against department and secretary of health

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