Supporting schools through a pandemic

Updated 3/18/21

It’s been one full year since Governor Jay Inslee announced the closure of school buildings across the Puget Sound region, including all schools in King County. What we thought might last a few weeks quickly turned into months, and now, for many, over a year.  

Throughout the past year, Public Health—Seattle & King County has been offering support to schools and families as they navigate opening classrooms during the pandemic.  

Last Friday, Governor Inslee announced an upcoming emergency proclamation that will require K-12 in-person learning options by April. Authority to make decisions about in-person learning lies with local school districts and the state.   

The majority of K-12 schools in King County had operated remotely for months after initial closure last March. No one feels the impact more than students, their families, teachers and school staff. Remote learning has helped protect the physical health of our community during the pandemic, but made it harder to meet the needs of many students.  

Public Health remembers the stress, fear, and bravery of one year ago when students and teachers packed up their school bags without knowing when they might return to the classroom. Since those early pandemic days, Public Health has partnered with schools and child care providers and seen firsthand the resiliency, creativity, and stamina of teachers, families, students, and staff.  

After more than a year, planning for expanded in-person instruction brings with it a range of emotions, from feeling nervous and uncertain to excited. Families and school staff are weighing multiple factors as they consider the health and well-being of their children and school employees. The constantly evolving nature of the COVID-19 outbreak means that families, students, teachers and staff likely have questions about how – and if – a return to in-person learning can happen safely.  

While it’s impossible to have zero risk of COVID-19 in classrooms, research and experience show that strong risk reduction strategies can greatly limit the spread of COVID-19. Schools using such strategies can return to in-person learning with a lower level of risk – better able to meet the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students in addition to academic.  

Public Health is only one part of the bigger puzzle and can’t answer all questions families, students and school staff may have. But knowing what to expect may help families and school staff feel more confident about returning to in-person learning. So here is the Public Health piece of the puzzle and how Public Health contributes to what you might expect when students return to in person learning.  

Clear guidance and support to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in school and child care settings 

There is clear guidance for schools that is required by state law in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Public Health, on a local level, helps schools adapt and apply the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state guidance, based on the needs and assets of their communities. When the CDC and state emphasize new recommendations, Public Health can help draw attention to it, such as the latest emphasis on the importance of good ventilation.  

“Available evidence tells us that following these required health and safety practices correctly and consistently can greatly reduce, but not eliminate, the risk for COVID-19 in schools. K-12 staff and child care staff are now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, which is an additional step towards greater  protection from COVID-19 in schools, child care settings, and in the community.”  

– Public Health – Seattle & King County Health Officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin

Public Health works in the following ways to support successful return to in person school instruction. 

Outbreak investigations and contact tracing:

  • Washington state expects King County schools to work with Public Health to prepare for or respond to anyone showing signs of COVID-19 while at school. A strong partnership is in place to support schools and child care providers that have one or more positive COVID-19 cases. Public Health works closely with schools and child care providers to identify who may have been exposed. Our investigation teams provide the school with guidance and the tools needed to communicate quickly with impacted students and families, so that COVID-19 is quickly and effectively contained.
  • Outbreak investigations in partnership with schools and child care providers help control the spread of COVID-19. We can learn from the data about child care (which never shut down), and the private schools (which returned to in-person learning):
    • Since the pandemic began, there have been 24 outbreaks in school settings, consisting only 2% of all outbreaks in King County.  Averaging 3 known positive cases per outbreak, 66% of the cases involved staff while 27% involved children and 7% involved others outside the school setting who were exposed to a positive staff or student.
    • The same is true for child care. Since the pandemic began, there have been 98 outbreaks reported in child care settings, representing 6% of all outbreaks in King County. Averaging 5 known positive cases per outbreak size, 49% of the cases involved staff while 33% involved children and 18% involved others outside the childcare setting who were exposed to a positive staff or child. Child care is an essential service, and this sector never shut down.

Convening and collaboration:

  • Public Health coordinates a task force dedicated to supporting schools and child care providers during the pandemic. This task force includes staff from both Public Health and Puget Sound Educational Service District, and connects with school leaders, educators, school staff, parents and the community to address the specific needs in the sector.

Resources and other supports:  

As more school districts plan to return students to inperson learning in the next few months, Public Health wants to support all members of the King County community improving the physical and emotional health of students, staff and faculty. The Public Health Schools and Child Care Task Force will continue to be available to address questions from the community, administrators and staff, and students and families. 

Originally published on March 15, 2021