King County’s K-12 schools are back in session. For most students, the 2020-2021 school year is starting remotely and Zoom is the new classroom. Even though the majority of the county’s school districts are teaching students remotely, they are also hard at work behind the scenes to be ready to provide in-person learning once COVID-19 transmission rates are lower.  At Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC), we are supporting schools and communities across the county as they prepare for in-school learning. Two crucial ways we are providing support are by updating key metrics on the spread of COVID-19 and developing a school COVID-19 response toolkit.

Update On Community Spread And The Impact On In-School Learning

One key metric that tells us about the community spread of COVID-19 is the transmission rate. The transmission rate is the average number of new reported COVID-19 cases for every 100,000 King County residents over a two-week period. For most of July and August, the average number of new cases was between 100 – 200 cases per 100,000 residents. The Washington Department of Health (WA DOH) considers a rate of 75 cases or more per 100,000 residents to be “high.” WA DOH recommends communities with high rates of COVID-19 transmission to teach all students remotely.

Most schools remain closed to in-person learning because the community spread of COVID-19 in King County has been too high. Bringing students, staff, and teachers back together in person could result in a major increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, with subsequent impacts on the hospital system and our communities as a whole.

Together in King County, we’ve responded to the spread of COVID-19 by keeping gatherings small, wearing masks frequently, and limiting trips outside the home. As a result, we are seeing the transmission rate drop below 75 – into the “moderate” transmission range. WA DOH defines moderate transmission as between 25-75 COVID-19 positive cases per 100,000 residents. WA DOH’s Decision Tree for K-12 Reopening outlines that schools can begin to consider slowly reopening for some in-person learning when COVID-19 transmission rates are ”moderate.“ If transmission rates remain moderate or continue to decline in King County, some school districts may decide to bring some students back to the classroom for in-person learning, based on their own assessment, plans, and abilities to offer in-person learning with reduced risk.

WA DOH’s decision tree recommends younger students be prioritized to return to schools for in-person learning because they struggle the most with online learning and are in a critical stage in their development. Over time, hybrid learning may be considered for middle and high school students if transmission continues to decline. When in person learning resumes, schools must continue implementing the WA DOH guidelines for anyone at the school, which include requiring:

  • Face coverings
  • Physical distancing
  • Keeping students in small, consistent groups (cohorts)
  • Increased cleaning and sanitation
  • Improved ventilation in buildings

School COVID-19 Response Toolkit

To support school partners in planning for reopening while COVID-19 remains a risk, Public Health – Seattle & King County recently released a toolkit of information and resources. These resources give schools strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible during in-person learning, and guidance to respond quickly in the case of illness. While schools cannot completely eliminate risk, they can utilize this toolkit along with guidance from WA DOH and resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the risk as much as possible and make returning to school safer for anyone in the school, including students, teachers, nurses, administrators, and cleaning staff.

Parents, caregivers, families, and community members can also use the toolkit to support schools to safely reopen, which will soon include resources in 15 languages. While many of the documents will be most useful for administrators, school nurses and teachers, families can also use them to learn more about safety practices and how to support them. Parents and caregivers can use the COVID-19 Daily Symptom Checklist to decide when to keep students home from school. If students have been ill or had an exposure to COVID-19, guidance about when to come back can be found in Fact Sheet: When Can I Return to School? The toolkit is updated periodically to be as useful as possible for communities.

In-person learning is crucial for students to thrive. Returning to the classrooms still has risk, and schools, families and communities can work together to reduce that risk. There is so much we don’t know about how this school year will unfold. Returning to in-classroom education will require all of us to keep rates of community spread as low as possible by committing to health practices, including physical distancing, wearing masks, and keeping gatherings small. Together all of us – caregivers, students, school staff and community partners – can be an active part of keeping everyone healthy and learning together.

Originally posted September 11th, 2020