Washington schools can reduce physical distancing to three feet for students

The announcement from Gov. Jay Inslee is effective immediately and could greatly expand in-person learning options statewide

WASHINGTON — Effective immediately, schools across Washington state can reduce the distance between students in classrooms from six feet to three feet.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced the change at a press conference on Thursday, saying the state was following updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control released last week.

New guidelines from the state of Washington could greatly expand in-person learning options at schools across the state. File photo
New guidelines from the state of Washington could greatly expand in-person learning options at schools across the state. File photo

Six feet physical distancing will still be required in areas where students eat meals, and adults will still be encouraged to maintain six feet of distance from each other and any visitors.

In counties where the infection rate remains above 200 per 100,000 people, middle and high school students outside of isolated “cohorts” would continue to be kept six feet apart.

Inslee said the decision was made due to a rapid increase in vaccination availability, including staff in all pre-K and K-12 education, as well as licensed child care providers, along with growing evidence that in-school transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 remains rare with mitigation measures in place.

“This order removes another barrier that would otherwise prevent the full reintroduction of children into the classroom in a more normal setting,” Inslee said.

Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID-19 response with the Department of Health cited research from other states where students are in classrooms, showing that distances of less than six feet are still effective, so long as other mitigation measures are in place, such as wearing masks, proper hygiene, and a rapid response to any potential outbreak.

The good news comes with a warning, Fehrenbach added, as some regions of the state see daily cases rising again, or at least leveling off.

“We’re at a pivotal moment here,” Fehrenbach said. “We know people are excited to move to Phase 3, we know you’re ready to get together with your family for holidays, to play more sports and so on. We’re excited about these things too, but it’s imperative that we undertake them cautiously given where we are, and given that we want more students to return to in-person learning.”

The governor added that the goal remains full in-person learning in as normal a way as possible starting next fall across the state.

Inslee said this decision was made possible by a rapid expansion of vaccine availability, though well over half the people in the state still aren’t eligible to receive a dose. 

Eligibility is set to expand to around two million more residents on March 31, including anyone over age 60, people in many congregate settings, restaurant and food service workers, and people in construction and manufacturing. The state currently plans to expand eligibility to all adults over the age of 16 on May 1, or sooner if vaccine supplies allow it.

The updated guidance could allow schools the option of moving to a four-day hybrid model, combining existing cohorts into one, especially at earlier grade levels. Fully remote learning options will remain for high-risk students, or those with at-risk family members at home.