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School Guidance

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Benton and Franklin Counties' schools recommended to resume full time, in-person learning

School Guidance

May 13, 2021 – Washington State Department of Health K-12 COVID-19 Requirements for Summer 2021
and the 2021-2022 School Year released

The Governor’s office announced on March 25 an order allowing all schools who want to adopt the new 3-feet minimum distancing recommendation by the CDC to do so effective immediately. Schools must still adhere to the Washington State Department of Health k-12 2020-2021 reopening guidance.  In order to limit transmission, masking and proper ventilation must still occur in the shorter distancing option. This allows opportunity for full-time in person learning in schools that can distance and maintain other mitigation measures. Note, the definition of a close contact has not changed and is still 6-ft for a cumulative 15 minutes or more within any 24 hour period

In late April 2021, Dr. Person was in contact with state public health regarding feedback from parents and schools regarding the quarantine timeline for students identified as close contacts in a congregate setting. On May 3, Dr. Person informed the school districts of the update from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) to allow local decision on shorter quarantine options for those identified as “close contacts” in the school setting. Schools may choose to use the shorter quarantine options as defined by the CDC OR may choose to continue use of the 14-day quarantine option – depending on their district and school circumstances and on school transmission in relation to community case rates.

The Tools to Prepare for Provision of In-Person Learning among K-12 Students at Public and Private Schools during the COVID-19 Pandemic document reflects revised metrics to inform local decisions on in-person learning, and includes revisions to the previous metrics identified by DOH.

These revisions align closely with the guidance that BFHD has been communicating with local schools since August 2020, and are designed to assist local public health and school administrators in making decisions about how to safely return students to in-person learning.

According to state guidance, several factors should be taken into consideration when planning for in-person learning. Those factors include:

  • Local community transmission rates
  • Ability of schools to implement recommended COVID-19 health and safety measures
  • Capacity of schools and local public health to monitor and respond to COVID-19 cases and mitigate outbreaks

The updated guidance also includes information on prioritizing students for in-person learning, depending on whether community COVID-19 activity is low, moderate, or high. As the provision of in-person learning in Benton and Franklin counties has increased, BFHD has not seen significant transmission occurring in schools. Therefore, local schools are able to maintain current levels of in-person learning, regardless of community COVID-19 activity, as long as they continue to demonstrate the ability to limit transmission.

Dr. Person and BFHD staff will continue working closely with schools to provide local guidance on expansion of in-person learning. As stated in the DOH guidance, “The decision to resume or expand in-person learning is complex and requires weighing both risks and benefits to children, staff, their families, and the broader community. With regards to COVID-19, DOH recommends that local leaders consider COVID-19 activity level (i.e., case rates, percent test positivity, trends, etc.) as well as the educational, social and emotional benefits of in-person learning for students.”

 

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How does the Health District make decisions on in-person learning recommendations for schools in Benton and Franklin Counties?

Benton-Franklin Health District utilizes state guidelines in DOH’s Tools to Prepare for Provision of In-Person Learning among K-12 Students at Public and Private Schools during the COVID-19 Pandemic, as well as local data and input from schools and community partners. The state guidelines specify that:

“The decision to resume or expand in-person learning is complex and requires weighing both risks and benefits to children, staff, their families, and the broader community. With regards to COVID-19, DOH recommends that local leaders consider COVID-19 activity level (i.e., case rates, percent test positivity, trends, etc.) as well as the educational, social and emotional benefits of in-person learning for students.”

Schools had to close in the spring at lower numbers. How can it be safe to provide in-person learning now?

The decision to close schools in the spring was not based on the number of cases. In the spring, the country didn’t know a lot about COVID-19 and how it spreads. We now know more about how COVID-19 spreads so schools can be better prepared to limit transmission. We also have important tools like mandatory face coverings and physical distancing which have been effective in reducing transmission. We also have not seen evidence of transmission in the school setting, particularly when safety measures are being implemented.

I, or my child, have medical conditions that put us at higher risk for COVID-19 and/or I don’t feel safe sending them to school.

BFHD continues to recommend that people at higher risk for serious illness with COVID-19 work remotely or continue distance learning. Schools are determining how to continue to offer distance learning options, so families can make choices. This  School Decision-Making Tool for Parents, Caregivers, and Guardians from the CDC can help families make decisions between in-person and distance learning.

Why didn’t BFHD wait to make the recommendation until the state metric had been met for a longer period of time?

Making the recommendation now gives school districts time to take additional active steps to prepare to reopen for in-person hybrid learning. The Health District will continue to work with school districts on reopening as safely as possible. In order to be able to reopen at any date for in-person hybrid learning, schools and school districts must still meet the requirements outlined by OSPI and the DOH for COVID-19 precautions.

Why does the state recommend begin in-person learning with elementary students?

DOH recommends that schools consider prioritizing elementary students for in-person learning, since many schools and districts around the state cannot feasibly bring all students back while adhering to 6-ft distancing. In this case, students with the highest need for in-person learning should return first. This also gives schools a chance to “phase in” in-person services with fewer students if schools feel this is needed. The hybrid models proposed by some of our local schools, which also accommodate middle and high school students, are another option the Health District supports. School districts will need to make decisions on this, based on their capacity, to adhere to the safety measures outlined in the DOH guidance, and to coordinate with the Health District on monitoring for cases and outbreaks within the school setting.

What is the definition of a “close contact”?

A close contact is defined by the CDC as “Someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period* starting from 2 days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to test specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated.

* Individual exposures added together over a 24-hour period (e.g., three 5-minute exposures for a total of 15 minutes). Data are limited, making it difficult to precisely define “close contact;” however, 15 cumulative minutes of exposure at a distance of 6 feet or less can be used as an operational definition for contact investigation. Factors to consider when defining close contact include proximity (closer distance likely increases exposure risk), the duration of exposure (longer exposure time likely increases exposure risk), whether the infected individual has symptoms (the period around onset of symptoms is associated with the highest levels of viral shedding), if the infected person was likely to generate respiratory aerosols (e.g., was coughing, singing, shouting), and other environmental factors (crowding, adequacy of ventilation, whether exposure was indoors or outdoors). Because the general public has not received training on proper selection and use of respiratory PPE, such as an N95, the determination of close contact should generally be made irrespective of whether the contact was wearing respiratory PPE.  At this time, differential determination of close contact for those using fabric face coverings is not recommended.