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Counties taking cautious approach to resuming in-person learning

School districts in several counties are sticking to full remote learning models despite meeting Department of Health (DOH) standards for partially resuming in-person instruction at K-12 schools.

To advise communities on the extent to which they should resume in-person learning, DOH released a “Decision Tree” for school administrators, local health officers, and community stakeholders to consult. The Decision Tree provides metrics for assessing the risk of COVID-19 being introduced into schools based on the level of disease transmission in communities.

The Decision Tree is broken down into three levels, with low, moderate, and high COVID-19 activity levels each corresponding to a different suggested education modality.

On the low end, if a county reports under 25 cases per 100,000 people over two weeks, DOH encourages full-time in-person learning for all elementary students and hybrid learning for middle and high schools.

DOH considers 25 – 75 cases per 100,000 people over two weeks a moderate COVID activity level. Counties in this range are recommending to conduct distance learning and potentially expand in-person learning to elementary students. At this level, counties could consider adding hybrid in-person learning for middle or high school students if COVID transmission remained stable.

Over 75 cases per 100,000 people over two weeks is considered a high level of COVID activity, in which case DOH strongly recommends distance learning with the option for limited in-person learning in small groups, or cohorts, of the highest need students.

Based on the most recent two week average on DOH’s COVID-19 risk assessment dashboard, 10 counties have low levels of COVID activity and would be in the clear to commence full-time in-person learning for all elementary students and hybrid learning for middle and high schools.

15 counties, including King, have moderate levels of COVID activity and could potentially conduct in-person learning for elementary students.

Nevertheless, many school districts in low and moderate activity level counties have begun the school year with full distance learning modalities.

The remaining 14 counties in the state are still experiencing high levels of COVID activity and should stick to distance learning for almost all students, per DOH recommendations.

The only two counties in Western Washington that fall into the high activity category are Mason and Grays Harbor.

According to DOH, local health officers remain responsible for controlling the spread of communicable disease. But making schools suitable environments to conduct in-person learning during the pandemic is ultimately the job of administrators, said DOH.

While DOH encourages local health officers and school administrators to work together to determine the best setting or mix of settings for their students, school administrators remain ultimately responsible for establishing the education services appropriate for their students. The local health officer should advise the school administrator and the school community regarding the level of COVID-19 activity, as well as the local community’s access to testing, and the health department’s capacity to respond to potential cases or outbreaks in schools with time investigations and contact tracing.”

If a local health officer determines that a school’s opening to or continued operation of in-person learning poses an imminent public health threat to the community, that local health officer has the legal authority to direct an interruption of in-person learning.

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