Updated message from Public Health regarding return to in-person learning

Note: This message is in response to Public Health—Seattle & King County hearing many comments from the community as K-12 schools look toward providing broader in-person services. 

By Jeff Duchin, MD, Health Officer for Public Health—Seattle & King County

We at Public Health are grateful to have heard from so many voices — from families, students, teachers, school staff, and administrators — about their experiences, concerns, and desires related to K-12 learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Feelings of fear and uncertainty in response to planning for expanded in-person instruction during the pandemic are very real for many people, and understandable given the unfamiliar and evolving nature of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Responding to the release of the Washington State Department of Health’s (DOH) revised Tools to Prepare for Provision of In-Person Learning in December 2020, Public Health acknowledged in a statement that resuming and maintaining in-person learning may pose risks to children and staff (including teachers, school administrators, and other staff in the school environment), and to their families and household members. And consistent with guidance from DOH and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), thoroughly and consistently following COVID-19 health and safety measures will sustain the greatest possible level of risk reduction.  

At this time, Washington state guidance for in-person learning has not changed in response to the recent licensure of COVID-19 vaccines for persons aged 16-64 years or in response to the recent emergence of more transmissible variants of COVID-19.

  • When available, COVID-19 vaccination can help lower risk to school staff in addition to, but not as a replacement for, effective implementation of the COVID-19 safety guidelines required by the Governor.  Currently, vaccine supplies are limited nationally and in Washington State. Vaccine prioritization guidance (and any changes thereto) for school staff will be made by the Washington State DOH. King County will facilitate local implementation of that guidance.
  • The newly recognized COVID-19 variant strain spreads more easily than previous strains but is not thought to cause more severe illness.  Currently recommended prevention measures are the same for the variant as for previous strains, although adherence to the measures must be higher to have the same impact on preventing transmission.

The risks of COVID-19 from in-person learning must be weighed against the benefits and the harms from not having in-person attendance to students’ emotional, social, academic, and physical wellbeing. For this reason, CDC recommends that K–12 schools be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures have been employed and the first to reopen when they can do so safely. It is also crucial to provide families and students the option of remote instruction for those who are the most vulnerable to the risk of COVID-19 transmission and its associated impacts.

Public Health recognizes that school boards and leadership are ultimately responsible for establishing appropriate education services. We remain available to consult and help inform decision making.

Originally published January 20, 2021