FILE - Washington High School

A staff member in a Bothell, Washington high school.

(The Center Square) — Gov. Jay Inslee released new guidelines on Wednesday he says give Washington classrooms a better shot at reopening safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The governor's new health metrics recommend that schools reopen if their corresponding counties see 50 cases per 100,000 people for two weeks straight.

In counties with 50 to 350 cases per 100,000 people, Inslee advises schools phase in onsite learning starting with elementary students.

Counties with case rates higher than that should offer in-person learning only for elementary and special-needs students in groups of 15 or fewer.

Inslee's new recommendations come with an additional $3 million in CARES Act money to pay for third-party audits to help schools meet safety standards.

Washington health officials suggest children may be less efficient transmitters of COVID-19 than adults despite mixed findings on the matter from the CDC.

"I have sought the opinions of state and local education administrators, as well as educators, staff, parents and school boards," Inslee said. "Many people's lives revolve around a regular school schedule and, apart from the academics, schools provide social supports that advance healthy childhood development."

Inslee's new set of recommendations cut out prior test positivity thresholds he included in September and lowers the threshold to reopen onsite classrooms by nearly half. School districts are still free to opt out of them if they choose.

Washington has seen a COVID-19 case rate of 468.4 cases per 100,000 people for the past past two weeks. Only coastal San Juan County has reached Inslee's new threshold as of Wednesday. 

Schools across Washington opted to conduct virtual classes this summer at the behest of many parents and teachers unions

Months later, consternated parents and state officials have voiced their frustrations with virtual instruction.

Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, who happens to be both, shared some of his own frustrations with the state of education in Washington speaking with state lawmakers last month.

“I’ve got a son failing two classes," Reykdal said. "He’s never failed in his life. He's taken AP classes all three years. He’s struggling like hell right now. This is a sh***y system."

A report by the Washington Office of Public Instruction from October found that schools saw attendance rates drop by 2.82% in September of 2020 compared to September of 2019. Statewide kindergarten rates have fallen by 14%.

That percentage amounts to about 31,000 elementary students out of 1.1 million statewide.

Places like the Centralia Elementary School District have seen virtual attendance rates fall as low as 83.49% between October 5 and November 9 while others like Issaquah School District have seen attendance rates of 98% in that same time.

Special-education classes have also seen big declines in attendance rates like at Federal Way Public Schools where the rate is 85.7%, according to Whitney Chiang, a spokesperson with the district.

Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Police Center, points to such data as evidence the state cannot and will not provide the instruction students need during the pandemic.

"We can all agree this isn't working," Finne said. "This is failed. We have a rigid system that is inflexible that is not responsive to the needs of parents."

If schools cannot reopen, Finne recommends the state pay parents to hire their children personal tutors to help them catch up on lost class time.

According to a SurveyUSA Research Poll from Seattle's King-TV, about two-thirds of 675 parents surveyed in August were willing to send their children back to classes if schools reopened.

About 71% of Republicans respondents said they were "very likely" to support both in-person learning only or a mix of in-person and virtual learning.

Only 28% of Democrats respondents said they were "very likely" to support the two learning models.

Inslee is expected to release his final set of budget proposals for the 2021-2023 biennium later this week. 

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.