Schools would be required to provide 30 percent in-person learning, for a minimum of two days a week
OLYMPIA — Facing an unprecedented behavioral health crisis, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday signed an emergency proclamation, ordering schools statewide to reopen for in-person learning no later than April 5 for K-6 students, and April 15 for secondary grade levels.
“The youth mental health crisis has become significantly worse during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Inslee said during a press conference announcing the order. “It is time to provide an in-person learning option to help students who need it.”
Under the proclamation, schools would be required to make at least 30 percent of a student’s education each week in-person, at a minimum of two days of in-person instruction, while still providing fully remote learning opportunities for students who request it.
“Educators have been creative and have worked very diligently to provide remote learning and the very best for all their students,” Inslee said. “But it is clear that there is no substitute for in-classroom learning and interaction with other children and caring adults, both for educational outcomes and the behavioral and physical health of students.”
The issues have especially hindered students who already traditionally struggle to keep up, including English language learners, those in poverty, and those who were already academically challenged.
“Keeping them out of school any longer will result in gaps to their educational attainment, which they may not be able to overcome in their lifetime,” said Dr. Peter Asante, pediatrician and board member with the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Our kids are not faring well, and their incredible resilience continues to deteriorate the longer we keep access to in-person school closed.”
The state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, said he supports the governor’s proclamation, noting that studies have shown in-person learning can be done safely with measures like mask usage and physical distancing in place.
“The data and science are clear: With health and safety measures in place, schools can safely provide in-person learning for their students,” Reykdal said. “We also know our in-person learning environment provides students with (the) comprehensive support that many really need right now.”
In a letter sent to superintendents across the state on Monday, Reykdal noted that March 17 marks a full year since schools statewide were ordered closed as the COVID-19 pandemic grew.
“The past year has been challenging,” Reykdal wrote. “I have said since day one that there
was no training manual for this. Each of you have navigated the past year with your head and
your heart, bringing your community to the decision-making table, intentionally opening up
two-way communication channels, building partnerships with your local health officers, and
doing everything you could to continue the excellent education that you provide – no matter
where the ‘classroom’ was.”
Most Clark County school districts now offer in-person learning options at all grade levels, with plans to expand as possible. Some are even considering moving lower grade levels to four days per week.
Beyond the educational problems facing many students over the past year, public health experts are increasingly alarmed by a growing mental health crisis among youth.
“Schools provide a range of health benefits for our children. These include the development of social and emotional skills, nutritional services, and access to behavioral health services,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID-19 response in the state. “Governor Inslee’s announcement means all families will have an option for in-person instruction and services in a way that protects the comprehensive health and well-being of students across the state, in addition to protecting students, staff, and the broader community from COVID-19.”
Elizabeth Meade, MD, president of the Washington chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics added that the date is clear, and shows an alarming increase in children and adolescents with new or significantly worsened mental health issues, depression, mental anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide.
“We cannot wait any longer to repair the systems that help support children and families, and education is one of the most critical of those systems,” said Meade. “We know from nationwide data and experiences that return to in-person learning can be done in a way that is safe for both students and staff.”
Reykdal’s letter acknowledged that existing six-foot physical distancing requirements will make it difficult for many schools to find sufficient space to offer all students the 30 percent minimum in-person instruction.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Reykdal noted, is currently examining those requirements, and may reduce the distance necessary between students, especially in earlier grade levels where studies have shown children are less likely to transmit the virus as easily.
The state has also opened vaccine eligibility for any pre-K or K-12 staff, as well as licensed child care providers. On Monday, nearly 500 people were vaccinated during a community clinic hosted at Woodland High School, part of an ongoing effort by regional public health agencies to increase the rollout of vaccines, especially to educators who have been concerned about their own risk while returning to classrooms.
Inslee noted in his proclamation that increasing in-person learning options for K-12 students is only a first step in repairing the damage caused for many of them during the pandemic.
“Increasing the option to return to school facilities for all K-12 students will help to prevent or curtail mental and behavioral health issues for many students by reducing isolation and improving in-person access to educators, school personnel, mentors and peers,” the governor said, “but it is not a panacea for the long-standing need for accessible behavioral health services and supports for our children and youth. It is only a part of the solution to addressing mental and behavioral health issues for children and youth, many of whom will also need greater access to and availability of behavioral health services and supports, in and outside of schools.”