SEATTLE (AP) — Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday that he’s strongly recommending most schools offer online-only learning for students this fall due to COVID-19, and canceling or postponing sports and all other in-person extracurricular activities.
“This pandemic will continue to grow unless something changes,” Inslee said, adding if every school district brought all students back “I believe we would see a dangerous increase of COVID activity.”
Officials say the virus is still spreading too extensively in the state, which saw the nation’s first confirmed virus case in late January. Since then Washington has seen more than 59,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 1,600 deaths.
Inslee, who made the announcement with the superintendent of public instruction for Washington and the state’s health officer, said districts had asked for guidance and the new framework largely matches what many communities have already decided for the new school year.
“Nothing about this is ideal. The best model we have built is in person,” Chris Reykdal, Washington state superintendent, said of remote learning.
Washington officials broke down their school guidelines – which are recommendations, not requirements – into categories for counties deemed high risk, moderate risk and low risk.
For high-risk counties, Washington state recommends distance learning and no- n-person activities. Limited in-person instruction could be considered for high-need students.
Twenty-five of the state’s 39 counties are considered high-risk, meaning there are more than 75 cases per 100,000 people, including all three counties in the Seattle metro area. Many schools in the Puget Sound region have already announced plans to start the year with an online-only model.
For moderate-risk counties (25 to 75 counties per 100,000) Inslee and others say distance learning should be considered for middle and high school students. In-person learning could be an option for elementary students and those with special needs. Extracurricular activities should also be cancelled. Nine counties are currently listed as moderate risk.
In the five, smaller low-risk counties where there are fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 officials recommend a hybrid distance/in-person schedule for older students and in-person learning for elementary school students.
Reykdal stressed that daily attendance requirements and ongoing assessments of progress must still be adequate in remote learning, as required by law, but that it doesn’t mean eight-hours of screen time. School districts must design a system of accountability to match the mode of learning.
He said districts have already been warned that without a federal waiver, they must be prepared for the annual standardized testing that will be held in the winter and spring.
And though the state has little oversight over private schools, the governor said those that have decided to offer full in-person learning must still adhere to his orders on indoor gathering capacity, social distancing and health and cleaning guidelines.
“I hope they follow recommendations because the science applies to both public and private schools,” Inslee said.
Inslee also announced $8.8 million in federal funding to help the state pay for internet plans and technology needs for low-income families. Critics of online learning say not enough consideration has been given to students who lack reliable internet or computers.
Reykdal said some of that money will pay for a year’s worth of internet service for the tens of thousands of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and already live in an area with connectivity. He said public districts have so far already received $200 million for address covid, which can be used to buy protective gear for teachers who return to class.
Inslee said any intervention by the state to close a school because of covid infections will be on a case by case basis going forward. The governor on April 6 issued an emergency order to keep schools across the state closed through the end of the school year.