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Three takeaways from back-to-school guidance

Students are preparing to return to classrooms across Washington State in the coming months as the Delta variant continues to drive up infections. The state Department of Health has released guidance for schools on how best to protect students. 

Here’s three key takeaways: 

Schools are taking a “layered” approach

Washington State schools should be using numerous levels of protection to try and keep students and staff safe. This includes encouraging students and their families to get vaccinated. Gov. Jay Inslee this week announced that all K-12 employees must be vaccinated. 

Superintendent Chris Reykdal has stated that he would also support a vaccine mandate for students. The Department of Health guidance states that schools should begin verifying student and staff vaccinations, and those who are fully vaccinated do not have to quarantine if exposed to COVID-19 and are not showing symptoms. 

All students, staff and visitors will be required to wear masks when indoors unless they’re eating, with limited exceptions. Ventilation and staying three feet away from other students is also required. Rooms must be aired out two hours before and after occupancy, and cleaned daily. 

There’s also additional recommended protective layers, like screening tests:

“Schools need to maintain flexibility in how these layers are applied. Most layers, including universal masking, are required at this time. If schools choose to remove a recommended added layer of prevention such as screening testing of students or staff, they should do so one layer at a time while factoring in considerations such as community transmission rates, local outbreaks, and vaccination rates.”

Community transmission factors heavily into the Centers for Disease Control recommendations. It recommends that in areas where there’s high transmission, screening testing should be offered for all students who are not fully vaccinated at least once a week. It also recommends cancelling high-risk extracurricular activities like band, choir and indoor exercise. 

All of Washington State, and most of the U.S., is experiencing high community transmission right now, as defined by more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people and more than 10% of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in the past seven days. 

Nationwide, 87% of counties have high levels of community transmission, a nearly 9% increase from seven days ago. 

Screenshot from the Centers for Disease Control

Two or more cases makes an outbreak

The Department of Health defines an outbreak as two or more COVID-19 cases among students or staff, with some additional conditions as seen in the picture below. 

Screenshot from the Washington State Department of Health guidance

When schools learn of an outbreak, the school’s designated COVID-19 coordinator has to notify the district and local health jurisdiction. This coordinator is also in charge of gathering the personal information of those exposed to the virus and sending them to the local public health department as part of an outbreak investigation. 

From there, it’s up to the local health department and the school district to decide whether to quarantine entire classrooms or even schools, sending students and staff home for up to 14 days, said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. 

Avoiding the ‘whack-a-mole’ scenario

One of the scenarios health and education officials hope to avoid is constantly sending students bouncing between home and online learning in the face of outbreaks popping up. Payne said Reykdal’s push for employee vaccinations was partially motivated by a desire to keep students healthy, and avoid disruptions. 

But with the Delta variant so widespread, it seems unlikely that schools will be able to avoid quarantines entirely. Payne said districts have been planning for how best to handle these situations. 

“Most districts have a strategy that they believe they could fairly quickly go back into remote learning if needed,” she said. 

There’s several levels of quarantine, as seen below. (note: image has been cropped to remove a page break)

Screenshot from the Washington State Department of Health guidance

Despite the risk, Payne said they believe the measures will be enough to protect students. 

“Public Health is still really confident in those mitigation measures, so those are what we have in place right now,” she said. 

A spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Health stated the following in an email:

“We have found that when schools follow the layered mitigation approach (masking, social distancing, vaccinations-for those who are eligible-appropriate cleaning, testing and staying home when sick), we have been able to keep school outbreaks at a minimum.”

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