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Meeting thresholds is just first step in reopening schools

UPDATE: We updated this blog to provide more information about the 6-day reporting lag. 

The requirement for Pierce County to start school with remote learning is far from the final word on the school year.

As we track the county’s COVID-19 statistics and follow state guidelines, we will arrive at decision points that will allow schools to consider phased reopening for in-person learning, perhaps soon.

On Aug. 5, Governor Inslee and the state Department of Health issued a report on in-person learning for K-12 students at public and private schools. It includes a decision tree for K-12 schools. The decision tree provides 4 metrics for school administrators and local Health Officers considering in-person instruction:  

  • The 14-day case rate per 100,000. Moderate target range = 75 to 25 per 100,000 population. Low target range = under 25 per 100,000 population.
  • The trend in percent of COVID-19 tests that are positive. Target = stable or decreasing.
  • The trend in new cases of COVID-19 by day. Target = stable or decreasing.
  • The trend in hospitalizations because of COVID-19. Target = stable or decreasing.

You can track our current Safe Start metrics as they apply to reopening schools at tpchd.org/covidinfoschools. We don’t need to meet each goal to advance through the phases of Safe Start, but we need to make progress on all of them. We are on track to be below the 75 per 100,000 14-day average very soon, but the state requires us to report our case rate with a 6-day lag to ensure accuracy. 

This 6-day data lag has been a required element of Safe Start metrics for movement into phases and other re-opening requirements.

Child studying on couch

These metrics are essential benchmarks our community must meet. Then the Health Officer, working with school partners, will evaluate when a gradual return to in-person education models can begin. 

We’re making it easier for you to follow our data.

People follow our daily case counts and rates closely, but percentage of positive tests and level of hospitalizations because of COVID-19 are also important factors. The Director of Health will consider all these metrics to determine when it is safe to reopen schools for in-person learning. 

Especially as we head into flu season, hospital capacity is a critical measure of community health and safety. We want the percentage of hospital beds filled with COVID-19 patients to stay steady or even decrease. We also want a stable or decreasing trend in the positivity rate and number of cases, in addition to meeting the case rate thresholds.

Pierce County is trending toward achieving these benchmarks, but any reintroduction of in-person learning will need to be phased in with appropriate observation periods to ensure we don’t spark an upswing in community disease transmission. The benchmarks are just one step. Most schools are developing robust plans and will be well positioned to open to some in-person learning as soon as community disease rates are low and stable.

The decision tree already allows the option for limited in-person learning in small groups, or cohorts, for the highest need students, such as students with disabilities, students living homeless, those farthest from educational justice (for example, foster children), and younger learners. We interpret “small groups” to be 5 or fewer people. 

We support school districts as they plan to implement a safe and staged return to in-person learning for all students.

What can I do to help my child’s school reopen? 

  • Help everyone in your family stay the course with healthy habits. Be persistent even as disease rates come down. 
    • Stay close to home.
    • Wear a mask when you leave home.
    • Limit your interactions to a small circle of friends and family.
    • Keep gatherings small, and outside if possible where fresh air circulates.
    • Stay 6 feet apart from others. Wear a mask when you cannot maintain 6 feet of space.
    • Get tested for COVID-19 if you are experiencing symptoms, are Black, Latinx, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Island, American Indian, Alaska Native—or have participated in any gatherings—social, civic, business, political, athletic or otherwise.
    • Wash your hands, cover your cough, and keep up your best hygiene and sanitation.
  • The high rate of community transmission that began in mid-June, shortly after we entered Phase 2, is only now beginning to come down. We don’t want to reverse that trend.
  • Especially as we head into the Labor Day holiday weekend, please plan small. We have our recent history of a huge spike after the July 4th holiday. A weekend of fun is not worth rising case counts, isolation or quarantine for many, more deaths, more hospitalizations—and a further delay of in-person learning for our kids.
  • Even if you and your family feel healthy, you may unwittingly contribute to disease spread if you are gathering with people from outside of your household, moving about in public places without wearing face coverings, and not remaining vigilant about hand and respiratory hygiene. You can have and spread COVID-19 to others even if you do not show symptoms.

With your help, we will make good progress to safely re-open schools for in-person learning. Learn more at tpchd.org/covidinfoschools