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We support state guidelines that enable students to return to classrooms

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department supports the decisions of schools and districts to return students to in-person learning by following state guidelines and safety protocols.

How and when to reopen schools for in-person instruction is one of the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Safety protocols are key to reopening schools.

As understanding of the disease and how it spreads expanded in the last year, schools guidance from the state Department of Health evolved.

In the latest guidance issued in December, the state said “the science and early experience of schools in Washington state and across the nation suggest that rigorous health and safety measures can limit transmission of COVID-19 in the school environment.” The steps you are already taking – such as maintaining physical distance, wearing face coverings, increasing ventilation and disinfecting – are working. A study from the Institute of Disease Modeling (IDM) indicated that these precautions provide the vast majority of protection to students and staff and that adding testing would not help much.

The school testing pilot in three Pierce County school districts that wrapped up at the end of 2020 provided us valuable local information to support these assumptions.

Lessons from school testing pilot.

During the pilot, we tested students and staff before starting and then weekly from the end of November until the holiday break in mid-December. More than 4,000 students and staff received almost 10,000 rapid antigen tests. Our COVID-19 positivity rate was less than 0.2% and  transmission did not occur at school. This addressed some of the gaps in knowledge:

  • Children get sick less but also show fewer symptoms when infected. Were other reports just missing cases? Weekly testing of asymptomatic students and staff showed us we were not and the incidence was extremely low.
  • What happens when the community transmission rate goes higher? Does the risk increase? The IDM report was modeled at a 14-day case rate of 75/100,000, and we have seen much higher rates since. We know a national database shows case rates in students and staff track community spread but at very low levels. Our case rates were in the 250-350/100,000 range during the pilot, confirming that incidence was still very low and spread not occurring in  schools when community transmission is high.

The fact that safety precautions are working and incidence in young children is so low, tells us students and staff can safely return even without vaccination.

Our pilot testing program gave us hope that we can bring students back for in-person learning while protecting health and safety and controlling community spread. The results give us confidence that the guidelines Department of Health set late last year are valid.

Revised school guidance and metrics.

The state focuses on three metrics to guide school decision makers: 14-day case rate per 100,000, test positivity and trends in cases and hospitalizations. Those markers are highlighted as part of the state Roadmap to Recovery section in recent changes made to our dashboards.

DOH recommends the phasing in of in-person learning starting with elementary students not already in-person and middle school when the 14-day/100,000 rate falls below 350 cases per day. Then over time, schools can add high school after middle school and when rates drop below 200 cases per 100,000 over 14 days.

New variant identified.

On Jan. 24, we announced the first case of a COVID-19 variant identified in Pierce County in an existing case.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department completed case and contact investigation. The person had mild symptoms and completed the isolation period.

We expected the first case of a variant in Pierce County and prepared for this. Our state and federal partners are conducting additional surveillance testing on COVID-19 samples to identify cases with variant strains. It is likely we will find more cases of the variant in the coming days and weeks.

What does this mean for schools?

The good news is the steps we need to take are no different than what we have already asked everyone to do. The simple steps you have heard so much about are even more important.

Everyone needs to continue to do their part to minimize the spread—and get vaccinated when it is their turn.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department supports school districts and private schools as they implement plans for a safe return to in-person learning for all students. 

Check in with Dr. Chen: We support state guidelines that enable students to return to classrooms.