Washington Flag

Schools in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties were the first places affected by Gov. Jay Inslee's school shutdown order. Now, with Wednesday's news that Snohomish County officials are suggesting schools stay closed, it's possible that they could be the among the last to reopen their buildings.

With just over a month until most schools begin, health experts in the state's most populous counties cautioned against reopening school buildings, which means that nearly half of the Washington state's 1.1 million students could be learning online in the fall.

County health officials and researchers from the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM) all came to the same conclusion based on the data at hand: transmission rates are too high to safely bring students back to classrooms without risking the spread to the wider community, even with proper precautions such as masks, lower class sizes and social distancing.

Inslee announced Tuesday he's extending the pause on reopening Washington counties indefinitely, citing increasing COVID-19 cases.

King County, once considered the nationwide epicenter for COVID-19, was the first to receive a cautionary message from health officials about reopening schools. That warning, sent earlier this month, prompted an avalanche of remote learning-only announcements from the state's largest school districts, including Seattle, Bellevue and Lake Washington.

Pierce County health officers followed last week, and Snohomish County made the same call Wednesday.

"By making this recommendation now, I hope that provides our schools and their staff and families with as much time as possible to prepare for online learning," Dr. Chris Spitters, health officer for the Snohomish Health District, wrote in a news release.

In Snohomish County, "cases have continued to climb for more than a month and the rate is now at nearly 100 cases per 100,000 population. This is close to the rate Snohomish County experienced in March when schools first closed," county health officials said in a Wednesday news release.

The recommendations could change in any of these counties if the number of cases drop. But that will be up to each county's health officials.

A return to online school was a possibility that state educational officials told school districts to be prepared for, even as those officials encouraged districts to draft plans to bring students back into school buildings on alternating schedules.

Culture wars over reopening school buildings are raging across the country. Guidelines for doing so safely are changing by the week. But consensus has emerged around one thing: community transmission rates as a key indicator of safety. Opening before the surrounding area has the virus under tighter control could make the problem worse.

Young children are thought to be at a lower risk of transmitting the virus, though emerging research suggests that some older children who are symptomatic may transmit it as efficiently as adults. There are fears about adults and students in schools catching and spreading the virus outside the building.

Teacher's unions here and across the country have also pushed back on returning to in-person learning, citing risk to school employees, especially those who are older and in high-risk categories.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second largest teacher's union, which represents 1.7 million school employees, issued a resolution this week saying it will support any local chapter that decides to strike over reopening plans. Most Washington state teachers are members of the National Education Association union, which has supported pushback to reopening schools, but it has not issued a resolution supporting strikes.

For schools to resume in King County, based on the IDM report, King County must test at least 2,000 to 3,000 people for the virus each day. Among the conditions: community activity -- which includes everything from shopping to going to church -- must stay below 70% of where it was before the coronavirus took hold in the Puget Sound region. Community activity was at 65% in mid-June, the report said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Hannah Furfaro contributed to this story.

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