Gov. Jay Inslee speaks with kindergartners in Chelsea Singh’s class during a visit to Firgrove Elementary School in Puyallup on Thursday. Students are back in school and all teachers and students are wearing masks. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times via AP)

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks with kindergartners in Chelsea Singh’s class during a visit to Firgrove Elementary School in Puyallup on Thursday. Students are back in school and all teachers and students are wearing masks. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times via AP)

Inslee signs bipartisan COVID-19 spending bill

By Rachel La Corte

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — More than $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding will be allocated across Washington state under a measure signed into law Friday by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The measure, which received strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate this month, spends $2.2 billion on various efforts, including vaccine administration, rental assistance and money for school districts as they move back toward in-classroom teaching.

“The focus this year is relief, recovery and resilience, and this legislation will make big progress in all three,” Inslee said before signing the bill.

Under the bill, $714 million will be allocated to schools as they move toward welcoming students back to the classroom.

An additional $618 million will go toward vaccine administration, contact tracing and testing, and $365 million will go toward rental assistance to help renters and landlords affected by the pandemic.

The bill also allocates $240 million to small business assistance grants that will be administered through the state Department of Commerce and $70 million to assist undocumented immigrants impacted by the pandemic who do not qualify for federal or state assistance.

An additional $50 million is for grants to help childcare businesses stay open and expand capacity, and $26 million is for food assistance.

The measure has an emergency clause and takes effect immediately.

For schools to be eligible to receive funding, they must submit an updated school reopening plan to the Office of the Superintendent of Instruction by March 1.

Money allocated to schools can be used in a variety of ways, including projects to improve the air quality in school facilities and addressing learning loss among students.

A spokeswoman for the state superintendent of schools said that about 30 percent of the state’s 1.1 million public schools students are receiving some kind of in-person learning.

Earlier this week, Inslee announced that the state was expanding COVID-19 testing options for more public schools and said more students should have access to in-person learning.

On Thursday, he toured Puyallup’s Firgrove Elementary School, which has had students on hybrid in-person and remote schedules since January. It was his second public school tour this month.

Decisions about how and when to reopen schools to students are largely left to individual districts.

Several districts — including Seattle, the state’s largest — have been closed for in-person instruction for almost a year during the pandemic.

Some teacher unions have expressed safety concerns about returning to the classroom, especially as teachers under age 65 are not yet able to receive a vaccine.

In December, the state started vaccinating health care workers, high-risk first responders and people living or working in nursing homes.

Last month, the state moved into Phase 1B on the vaccination schedule, and people age 65 and older started getting vaccinated, along with those age 50 and older who live in multigenerational homes.

Inslee, and his wife Trudi, received their second doses of the Moderna vaccine Friday afternoon.

Teachers age 50 and older will be included in the next phase of the state’s vaccination schedule, currently designated to occur in “spring/summer” and dependent on vaccine supply.

Inslee signed two other bills Friday sparked by the pandemic, one that exempts qualifying grants received on or after Feb. 29, 2020, related to a national or state emergency proclamation from state excise taxes and another that frees up $400 million from federal funds that had previously been allocated to increased vendor rates for Medicaid services.

Those increases will now be covered by a portion of the so-called rainy day fund and Medicaid matching funds.

There have been over 314,000 cases of COVID-19 in Washington state, and more than 4,800 deaths.

For most, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, although long-term effects are unknown. But for some, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

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