Between omicron, school staff shortages and chaotic winter weather, "Your local school district may need to close" temporarily over the next three or four weeks, Washington state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal said Friday.
Reykdal, who has been in lockstep with Gov. Jay Inslee about the need to keep schools open through all seasons of the pandemic, said that while state-mandated preventive measures still make schools among the safer public spaces, a lack of staff — caused either indirectly or directly by the virus — may force a district or individual school building to shut down.
"It is our No. 1 priority to keep the school in-person," Reykdal during a news conference Friday. "Although we're really challenged with omicron."
Students and educators around the state returned to school buildings after a holiday break that saw COVID-19 cases skyrocket here and across the nation with the spread of the omicron variant, a reportedly milder strain of the coronavirus for those who are vaccinated. In those who are unvaccinated, an infection can still result in serious illness. Seven or eight school districts and school buildings closed down this week as they buckled under the strain of multiple headwinds, Reykdal said.
"I'm hearing that a number of educators are having as much as half or more of their class missing," said Julie Popper, a spokesperson for the statewide teachers union speaking on behalf of the Seattle Education Association, the union representing many public school staff in Seattle. "There's a lot of frustration around that because that means they're going to have to repeat lessons."
School nurses in particular have been exhausted, she added.
Still, Popper said, educators generally want schools to stay open, because in-person learning is best, but the dire situation calls for more safety precautions. Inslee's announcement this week that the state will send masks, including KN95s, and at-home testing kits to schools should help, she added, provided districts follow through on their distribution.
Around 42% of students are fully vaccinated in Washington, Reykdal said during the news conference. Ninety percent of teachers are vaccinated.
When outbreaks occur, the state Department of Health advises that school districts use a "cascading closures" approach, starting with small-scale cancellations of extracurriculars, then classrooms, schools and entire districts if necessary. Like Reykdal, state health officials also stressed this week that in-person schooling is still "the best option for kids."
In addition to temporary absences caused by coronavirus infections, schools have had difficulty maintaining staffing for some of the most essential jobs in schools, including paraeducators and substitute teachers.
And, over the course of the fall, schools and entire districts closed temporarily as they saw thin margins in staffing, including Seattle Public Schools and the Bellevue School District, which closed for one day around the Veterans Day holiday.
While Inslee's emergency order forcing schools to offer in-person instruction during the pandemic remains in effect, there are cases in which school districts are allowed to physically close out of a need to quarantine, if there aren't enough staff or because of weather, said Reykdal.
When districts or school buildings close for quarantine purposes, state guidance requires that they provide remote learning in which at least 70% of the instruction is live.
Last week, several school districts in the Seattle area were preparing for the possibility should a temporary switch become necessary, but none released any concrete plans or indicated how likely the switch would be in the coming weeks.
Reykdal stressed that the pressures straining schools should begin to subside in the next month as cases peak.