As the start of the 2020-21 school year nears, parents and guardians of school-age children have been hit again with one of the ongoing, growing impacts of the coronavirus pandemic: remote learning is recommended to start the school year.
The challenges presented by COVID-19 also are being felt keenly by child care providers who must adapt to new health and safety measures, and by families who cannot keep children home from child care.
The Health District does recommend remote learning to start the coming school year, as well as continuing to keep children home from child care when it is possible to do so. These are important for fighting the COVID pandemic, but we also know that these recommendations create hardship.
The Governor, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Department of Health also have released a framework for schools to use when making decisions about reopening. It is line with the local recommendation. Schools in areas with high transmission are encouraged to offer remote learning with potential for limited, small group in-person instruction for high-need students.
More than 75 cases per 100,000 population is considered high transmission under the statewide framework, and Snohomish County is at nearly 100 cases per 100,000. Getting case rates down to between 25 and 75 cases per 100,000 could allow for more flexibility, such as in-person instruction for younger age groups and remote or hybrid options for older students. Additional in-person learning options could be explored once case rates drop below 25 per 100,000.
“Returning to in-person learning together with the ancillary services, social supports and other enhancing activities that come along with in-person education is a goal that is shared by the Health District,” Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters wrote in his recommendation to schools, sent July 29. “Yet, the reality of an attempt at in-person learning in the current situation would likely fall far short of that ideal and may come at an unacceptable cost in human health and further disruption of the learning environment.”
Many people have shared concerns and questions about schools and child care. We aim to address some of those in this blog. Please know that decisions around schools and child care are not made lightly, nor are they made without consulting others. The Health District continues to work with our public health partners throughout the state, the county’s Department of Emergency Management, and schools and child cares in Snohomish County.
Are schools prohibited from reopening?
The recommendation from the Health District and the statewide framework strongly support remote learning to start the school year, for both public and private schools. However, they are recommendations, not orders. Schools and school districts are making local decisions. Please monitor communications from your child’s school.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released guidance for K-12 administrators to aid in preparing for the upcoming school year. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also issued a district planning guide and FAQ for reopening schools. The Health District is not reviewing or approving plans for schools that choose to reopen, but will be involved if there is a case or outbreak at the school, or if there is an imminent disease control risk posed by the opening of the school that, in the judgment of the health officer, merits prohibiting that opening.
In the event of a case or outbreak of COVID-19 at a school, the school is required to cooperate with the public health investigation and to follow the directives of the local health officer, up to and including closure of classrooms or the entire facility (RCW 70.05.070; WAC 246-101-420; WAC 246-110-020).
Why recommend remote learning if child cares are open?
It’s true that child care providers face many of the same challenges as schools during this pandemic. However, child care is essential for children whose parents cannot keep them home at this time.
In a child care environment, which generally has a smaller total number of children than a school, the risk of amplifying community transmission is limited by that size. Generally, schools have many more students than the number of children present at any one child care. With increasing transmission rates in the community and hundreds of students sharing a school building, the probability of establishing sustained transmission in the school setting – and it leaking into the community – is greater.
It is important to reduce transmission in child care environments, as well, and the Health District continues to support child care providers in this effort. Guidance for child cares includes: excluding ill children and staff; wearing face covers; ensuring frequent hand hygiene; cleaning and sanitizing surfaces; avoiding or limiting activities that require close contact or shared objects and surfaces; keeping groups of children consistent; and limiting group size.
What about essential workers who can’t stay home with kids?
This is one reason child cares remain open with health measures in place. It is not realistic to expect that all parents or guardians can stay home or make other reliable arrangements for child care.
The state’s framework also allows for returning to in-person instruction for younger students sooner than for older students. Middle and high schoolers are more likely to be able to stay home and engage in remote learning without constant supervision.
Work to provide resources for health workers, first responders, and frontline workers who need child care for their families continues. We hope to have more to share soon.
Do I really have to keep my kid home from child care, school or other settings if they have the sniffles?
Short answer: yes. We recognize it can be inconvenient for parents to have sick kids stay home, and there are many possible non-COVID causes for a runny nose or mild sore throat. But we are experiencing a public health emergency, so the rules are stricter right now.
We need everyone’s help in preventing the spread of germs and illness. During this pandemic, children need to be kept home and out of child care with even mild cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, etc. Without testing, we can’t be sure whether the symptoms are those of a cold, the flu virus, or COVID-19. Even if the symptoms are for a cold or the flu, we don’t want that spreading, either.
If my child was identified as a close contact of a COVID case but tests negative, can they go back to child care?
Anyone who has had close contact with a COVID-19 case must quarantine for 14 days from the date of their last contact with that person, and they should get tested roughly 5-7 days after their last exposure. If test results come back negative, they still must complete the 14-day quarantine period. A test may be falsely negative or have been done too soon after exposure to detect the virus.
I’m not trained to be a teacher. Who is going to teach my kids while school is closed?
Remote learning doesn’t mean no school at all. Educators throughout Snohomish County are working hard to prepare for and provide lessons remotely. There is no doubt that distance learning requires new and different efforts on the part of parents or guardians, and it can be extremely challenging. But you are not in this alone. Please check with your child’s school on resources for those who need extra help, and remember that teachers are still there to teach their students, even if it all looks different than usual this fall.
What about kids who need extra support or have special learning needs?
The Health District will support exceptions in school plans to allow for in-person learning among small cohorts of high-need children with proper prevention measures in place.
How long until schools reopen for in-person instruction for all students?
There’s no magic date or timeline. The recommendation for remote learning is for the start of the fall term, with hopes that in-person instruction may resume in some form later in the year. As with many aspects of this pandemic, it is crucial to continue monitoring the situation and adapt to the health and safety needs. The Health District is in regular communication with local schools and school districts.
Other countries/states/areas have opened schools.
They have, with mixed results on the outcome for COVID transmission.
We are still learning about this virus, and we cannot gamble the health and safety of our community on limited examples from other parts of the world.
Our focus is not on the rest of the world, or even the rest of the country. It is on Snohomish County, and the circumstances here. Health behaviors and other factors can vary from place to place, and we need to look at what is happening locally to help schools make decisions that are appropriate for this community.
But I heard that kids don’t spread COVID-19…
We’re not going to gamble on that, either. Generally, children are quite good at spreading respiratory illnesses. It’s no secret that kids share germs, as well as bring them home to friends and family. Even if children are less efficient transmitters of COVID-19 than are adolescents and adults, the consequences to older and medically vulnerable adults of amplifying transmission can be severe or even fatal.
We aren’t certain to what degree children contribute to the spread of COVID, specifically. Existing evidence suggests children are infected less often than adults and may be less efficient transmitters, but the data is not conclusive. The cost could be lives if schools were to reopen under a misinformed assumption that kids are unlikely to spread COVID.
Children are not considered a high-risk group for severe illness from the infection, but we know they can become ill with COVID. The age range for confirmed cases in Snohomish County (people who have tested positive for COVID) starts at 0 – even infants can catch this illness. Two Snohomish County children have been hospitalized with serious post-infectious inflammatory complications of COVID-19 that can appear similar to Kawasaki syndrome (multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children [MIS-C]).
Also, there are staff, parents, volunteers, and other adults who interact with each other and with the children. Schools are an integral part of the community as a whole – transmission in the community affects schools, and transmission in schools affects the community.
There are negative consequences of having children stay home.
How students respond to remote learning can vary widely. Some prefer it, while others have a difficult time with instructional, social and emotional changes from in-person to online. Many students have friends, activities and trusted adults at school, and schools can be a connection to food and other necessities for some. It will likely be a long time before we fully understand the impact this pandemic is having on young people.
We understand that the recommendation for remote learning extends hardship, uncertainty and equity gaps already occurring during this pandemic. A multi-agency workgroup of state and local education and public health staff, along with representation from education-oriented non-governmental organizations, is working to address learning needs, childcare, and other branching impacts of this difficult choice.
Keep in mind that there would be a host of consequences and considerations should schools reopen in high-transmission areas, as well. Closing portions or all of campus as well as having exposed staff and students quarantine when there are cases could create a disjointed learning environment and schedule. If cases are identified in a school setting, it is likely to be scary and stressful for staff, students and families. And should a staff member, student, or student’s loved one be hospitalized or die from COVID-19, the impacts of that also would be felt throughout the school community.
We want children to get back to school, too. But we are in the middle of pandemic. Remote learning may not be ideal for education, but it is an important part of limiting the spread of COVID-19, avoiding a dangerous increase in hospitalizations, and preventing deaths.
We can all have a hand in reopening schools by taking steps to reduce the spread of illness.
- Wear your face cover in shared spaces
- Wash your hands often
- Avoid get-togethers with more than five people from outside of your household
- Keep your social group small and consistent
- Stay home if you are ill and get tested if you have COVID symptoms
- Clean and sanitize the surfaces you touch most at home or in your workspace
Now is also a good time to talk with your children about how they can help keep themselves and others healthy by following these same steps. Lead by example. Emphasize the importance of following the new health rules when schools do reopen.
Please be patient and kind with your school, teachers, other parents and guardians, and children or teens who are understandably frustrated and confused. Be patient and kind with yourself, too. You want the best for your kids, and we are doing our best to keep them – and you – healthy.
If your child/student is having difficulty adapting to the demands or stress of remote learning, discuss the situation with his/her teacher and health care provider.
This pandemic has been challenging in so many ways. We are all learning right now.
Thank you for continuing to learn with us, too.
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention