Schools in Kitsap County have decided to delay any in-person instruction for at least the first nine weeks of the school year, but eventually a decision will have to be made about when and if students can resume any sort of traditional learning.
That burden will fall on individual school districts, but the state Department of Health recently released guidelines to help the decision-making progress.
According to the DOH report, the threshold for “encourag[ing] full-time in person learning for all elementary students and hybrid learning for middle and high school students” is 25 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 over the course of a 14-day period. Studies have shown that younger children are less susceptible to COVID-19, and they tend to have a greater need for in-person instruction.
“These are among the most complex and difficult decisions community leaders will face during the pandemic,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID-19 response at the DOH.
At moderate disease activity level, defined as between 25 and 75 cases per 100,000 in a 14-day period, the DOH recommends remaining in distance learning, but districts can consider expanding to in-person learning to elementary school students. With high levels of activity, defined as 75 cases or more per 100,000, the DOH strongly recommends what is currently in place — distance learning with the option for limited in-person learning for a select group of students, such as those with special needs or disabilities.
In addition, a number of countermeasures should be in place. Districts should have plans to protect staff and students at higher risk for COVID-19 complications; cohorting students; practicing physical distancing; promoting frequent hand washing or sanitizing; and ensuring face covering use among students and staff.
“We strongly, strongly recommend any learning in-person take place in small groups, five to ten kids at a time and that you strictly cohort,” Fehrenbach said.
Currently, there are only six counties in Washington that meet the 25 cases per 100,000 threshold. Kitsap County has seen a decline since the calendar flipped to August (125 cases through Aug. 18), but activity is still well above what was reported between mid-March and mid-June.
School reopenings will also depend in large part on what happens outside of district buildings. While a study done by Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling shows that countermeasures put in place can significantly reduce transmission, modeling cannot account for other situations.
For example, if schools open most parents or guardians would be free to return to work if their employer allows it. Adults would be interacting with more people in an office environment and, in some cases, kids could find themselves in some sort of after-school care program — none of which can be modeled. School sizes — both the physical building and the total student body — and local density may also play a part in varying rates of transmission.
The study was based on data from King County, but Dan Klein, senior research manager for IDM, said other areas can draw broad conclusion that will be helpful.
Despite the limitations of the study, IDM was able to conclude that while reopening schools is not a “zero-risk activity” and that the likelihood of a student or staff member reporting on day one with COVID-19 in their system is near certain, using an “A/B” schedule (the hybrid model), cohorting students and rigorous symptom screening can decrease the risk.
“There aren’t any zero risk solutions to reopening schools,” Klein said.
Slowing community transmission will also be an integral part to getting students back in school. Kitsap County was well under the 25 cases per 100,000 over a 14-day period when it was approved to move from Phase 1 to Phase 2 in late May. The county looked set to go to Phase 3 in mid-June before cases spiked.
Once community transmission slows, schools can gradually start returning students, starting with the youngest, Fehrenbach said.