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Safety drives decision to open school with distance learning.

While Pierce County’s COVID-19 case rates remain high, reopening public and private schools for in-classroom learning cannot happen safely.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department Director of Health Dr. Anthony L-T Chen reinforced that message this week in a letter to public and private school leaders in Pierce County, telling them all schools are required to begin the school year using distance learning.

Understandably, that decision produces questions and comments from parents, educators and the public in general. Among them:

Why does this apply countywide and not just to individual schools and districts?

This pandemic affects the entire county. No single school or district is an island. People come and go across district boundaries for work, to shop, to recreate and more. This travel when community transmission is high increases the risk of getting infected or infecting others.

Hallway lockers 

Last week the state Department of Health issued a decision tree to guide local heath officers in making decisions about schools. It outlines thresholds for when to consider in-person learning in a community.

When the community transmission of disease drops below 75 total cases per 100,000 population over a 14-day period with a test positivity rate below 5%, schools can consider in-person learning for elementary students then gradually add hybrid in-person learning for middle or high school students. Pierce County is far above those numbers right now. As of August 12, our 14-day case rate is 120 per 100,000. You can watch our progress on these metrics on our data dashboards. See the Safe Start dashboard, “14-day case rate per 100,000” and “testing timeline: percent of tests that are positive by week.”

Why can’t schools open with a safety plan?

There are two questions we need to ask:

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

Because of the high level of disease transmission in the community, it is not safe to reopen schools for in-person learning in Pierce County. However, once disease transmission drops to the level where schools can return to in-person learning, all schools will need a safety plan so they can do so safely.

Health Department staff are consulting with schools on reopening plans. Most schools are developing robust plans to keep students and staff healthy and will be well positioned to open to some in-person learning as soon as community disease rates are low and stable.

Does Dr. Chen have the authority to order schools not to open?

Yes. We prefer to advise, but state law grants local health officers the power to “control and prevent the spread of any dangerous, contagious or infectious diseases” and to “take such measures as he or she deems necessary in order to promote the public health.”

Why is it OK for daycares to open and not schools?

The governor lists childcare establishments as essential businesses, allowing them to operate under the state’s coronavirus response.

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.

The high rate of community transmission that began in mid-June, shortly after we entered Phase 2, is only now beginning to come down. Reopening schools now could reverse that trend.

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. 

Why close schools when children don’t get very sick with COVID-19?

While they tend to have mild illness, children do get sick and even die from COVID-19. They can also develop a rare but serious condition called Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). In early August, it was reported that COVID-19 cases among children in the United States had jumped 90% over four weeks to 380,000. A separate report found that one in three hospitalized children was admitted to an intensive care unit

Children can easily spread virus. Because they often have mild or no symptoms, they can unwittingly infect parents, family members, friends, and others.

The recent death of a 19-year-old recent high school graduate with no known underlying health conditions serves as a sad reminder that COVID-19 is affecting people in every age group in our community.

All parents and families have a role in decreasing the level of COVID-19 cases in our community so we can get children back to school. You can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 when you:

  • 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 in public spaces.
  • Get tested for COVID-19 if you are experiencing symptoms, are a member of a heavily effected community—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.

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