Braun to Push For Statewide Metric Requiring Schools to Open


District 20 Sen. John Braun will push for a statewide metric requiring the reopening of schools this legislative session. The Centralia Republican and newly-elected Senate Minority Leader pre-filed his first bill in partnership with Democrat Sen. Mark Mullet on Christmas Eve — a bill that would force public schools to reopen if they hit a new statewide benchmark regarding COVID-19 prevalence, but would leave the decision to shift to virtual learning up to school districts. 

According to Braun, the original bill also required schools to shift to remote learning if a community breached the statewide metric — but he ultimately scrapped the provision.

“The more I thought about it, the less comfortable I was with that,” Braun told The Chronicle. “One thing we know for sure is that, at a detailed level, the state is not going to be successful in managing 295 school districts. There’s too many independent circumstances.”

In accordance with the bill, public schools would have to offer in-person learning “to all students” if a community’s percent of positive tests falls below 5 percent for two consecutive weeks. Although Lewis County leaders have expressed concern that the state could take decisions around public health out of the hands of local governments, Braun doesn’t anticipate the bill to be opposed by conservatives in the area. 

“They’re still frustrated that we’re not back in school sooner,” he said, noting that many schools are opening slower than Lewis County’s. “Some schools are, but schools that aren’t, that are just kind of waiting for someone to figure it out for them, well shame on them. They should be getting their kids back in school as soon as they safely can.”

Braun specifically criticized teacher’s unions, which have been raising concerns and filing labor complaints against employers trying to reopen, as reported by The Seattle Times. Braun characterized the unions as having too much influence on how schools operate during the pandemic.

The metric most commonly used to inform policy and gauge a region’s risk-level is new cases per 100,000 people, with 75 or more cases per 100,000 conferring a high-risk designation. Braun’s bill would mark a shift to the new metric of test positivity — the percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive.

“This metric does not punish communities for testing more, as does a metric tied to cases per population,” the bill reads. “The legislature intends to establish clear school opening metrics based on the positivity standard within counties, so these decisions are transparent and uniform throughout the state of Washington.”

Braun argued that the 5 percent positivity metric is “just mathematically more accurate.” The World Health Organization established the metric in May, although their data dashboard currently relies on total case count. A November publication by the organization cited limitations in both metrics.

In Washington state, the two different metrics roughly line up. Walla Walla County, with the highest new case count per 100,000, also has one of the highest test positivity rates at 21.1 percent. Meanwhile, all five counties below Braun’s proposed 5 percent benchmark (not taking into account the two consecutive week requirement) are also below the state average for new cases per 100,000, although only one is recommended by the state to begin bringing in all grade levels. The two metrics should offer a similar picture, Braun said, if each region has roughly even testing capacities. 

“The problem is when you don’t have even testing around the state,” he said. “So if you have to pick between the two, until you can get the exact same amount of testing, you pick the positivity rate. It’s a better indicator.”

Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Inslee announced new recommendations for reopening schools, which created significantly looser metrics aimed at bringing more students back to face-to-face learning. Under the new guidelines, which still leaves ultimate decisions up to local leaders, elementary and middle schools are encouraged to open even if counties have up to 350 cases per 100,000 people. The majority of counties are still beyond that bar, as the state and nation experience a third wave of infections. But the reversal of earlier, stricter school guidelines signals a broader consensus — present in Lewis County early on — that getting kids back in schools is vital and should be prioritized during the pandemic.