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Reopening schools will be a group effort

Like you, we want Pierce County youth to return for in-person education. We know in-person instruction offers superior learning, social interactions, food security, and emotional support. But we have to do it when it won’t send our COVID-19 cases skyrocketing.

Two questions drive the decision making on reopening schools:

  • Can we safely reopen schools for in-person learning?
  • If we can reopen schools for in-person learning, how do we do that safely?

On the first question, right now, we cannot safely reopen schools for in-person learning because of the  widespread transmission of COVID-19 in Pierce County. Director of Health Dr. Anthony Chen is requiring schools begin the year with remote learning.

A girl reads from a hand-held electronic device.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has not made these decisions alone. We have worked with state officials and representatives of districts and schools in the county—public and private—to develop solutions for student learning while driving down COVID-19 disease rates in our community.

The collaboration includes regular meetings with liaisons from public school districts and private schools, school nurses, and health officials in neighboring counties and the state.

In early June, we were doing well: averaging 10 cases a day with a total 14-day case rate of 16 per 100,000 population. These numbers shot up when we entered Phase 2. By early August, we hit our highest single day peak of 121 cases in a day and total 14-day case rate of 149. As the community transmission increased, we saw more positive cases in businesses, childcares, and even school summer programs.

Fortunately, those numbers are starting to drop. On Monday, we are averaging 58 cases a day with a total 14-day case rate of 91. Another measure, the test positivity rate, was 2% in mid-May, peaked at almost 8% and is now down to 5.5%.

According to the state Department of Health’s decision tree, when the community transmission of disease drops below a total 14-day case rate of 75 per 100,000 AND the test positivity rate is below 5%, schools can consider in-person learning for elementary students then gradually add hybrid in-person learning for middle or high school students.

We will add a dashboard on our COVID-19 information for schools page next week to help parents track these important indicators.

The Department has a flexible but data driven approach to school reopening. The Department has urged schools to continue to plan for hybrid models that include some return to in-classroom learning when the level of COVID-19 disease spread decreases. If the recent trend in community transmission of COVID-19 continues to drop, we are hopeful that we will soon meet the threshold for reopening elementary schools for in person learning.

Getting ready to reopen.

The work on the second question—how can we reopen schools safely?—has not stopped. Our next steps—and yours—are critical. Most schools are developing robust plans to keep students and staff healthy and will be well-positioned to open in-person learning as soon as community disease rates are low and stable.

Public schools, following Department of Health guidance, must provide plans to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and State Board of Education no later than two weeks before the district’s first day of school.

When asked, we consult with schools on their reopening plans, offering guidance and answering specific questions, but we do not approve the plans.

We are developing resources and toolkits for schools to use as they make decisions and communicate reopening plans. And soon we will be adding metrics to our schools information page that will show the progress toward the reopening thresholds.

The county’s emergency operations center is also helping schools with personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and other supplies that will make it possible to open safely.

How do we support social, emotional and behavioral health needs?

We have heard that educators, parents, and community leaders are concerned about special needs, social-emotional learning, and mental health that are difficult to address with remote learning. We are partnering to help find solutions.

Under the Department of Health’s decision tree, at our current disease activity level, schools can offer in-person instruction to small groups of the highest need students. We are consulting with schools that plan to offer these services. We will also help schools explore how to interpret “younger learners” and how to phase reopening when disease activity drops into the “moderate” range.

We are stepping up efforts to develop strategies to deliver social-emotional learning remotely and to screen, provide support, and intervene for mental health and substance use issues. We will be counting on educators, experts, and community partners to develop and implement best practices for these challenging times.

What can you do to help your child’s school reopen?

We are hopeful that our disease rates will continue to come down, but we must take every precaution to keep COVID-19 at bay. Our community remains in a tenuous position. As with any other setting where people may be in close proximity to others, settings where children gather remain vulnerable to outbreaks.

We will all have to remain vigilant with public health recommendations, so we do not cause another upswing in community transmission. See our graphic on healthy habits to help open schools.

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.

We are seeing some early signs of hope as our daily case counts continue a downward trend. Even in the face of this hopeful decline, it’s important everyone do their part.

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.

Remember, it’s up to all of us to get our kids back in school.