Report: Schools reopening depends on many factors

By Rachel La Corte | The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — A new report looking at the impact of opening Washington schools in the fall says that various measures — including masks and physical distancing — may be able to ensure sending students back to the classroom doesn’t increase transmission of the coronavirus, but only if community-wide activity of COVID-19 remains low.

“What’s happening in the community matters just as much as what happens in the schools,” Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID-19 response at the Department of Health, said at a news conference to discuss the report.

“We very, very much want to reopen schools for some level of in-person learning in the fall, and we’re also very concerned about the rising level of COVID-19 activity throughout Washington state and what that means for reopening schools in a little more than a month.”

The report, released by the state Department of Health, Seattle and King County Public Health and Institute for Disease Modeling on Wednesday, details modeling run by IDM based on the first three months of the upcoming school term in King County, but said the results could be applied to other communities.

It showed various scenarios that included grouping students by age, physical distancing, wearing masks, as well as daily screening of staff and students for symptoms.

The report found that reopening schools without any of the above countermeasures could lead to a doubling in the number of new COVID-19 cases in the county between September and December.

The report also said the report was drafted before a recent spike in cases in King County and other areas of the state, and that the rate of transmission would need to drop by the end of August for schools to reopen in September “without triggering exponential growth in COVID-19 burden.”

“At this time, there is too much COVID-19 transmission in our community to support school reopening,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, the health officer for Seattle and King County Public. “I find that conclusion very problematic. It reflects the intense interdependence that we have on each other in this community in order to move forward safely in the era of COVID-19.”

Durchin said that the community as a whole needs to be more aggressive about limiting social interactions, and abiding by physical distancing, wearing facial coverings and washing hands.

More than 42,300 people have tested positive for the virus in Washington state and about 1,400 have died.

The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

The report comes a day after Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday that the statewide pause for counties looking to advance from their current stage of economic reopening will continue though at least July 28, and warned of potential reopening rollbacks if coronavirus activity continues to climb.

Inslee said the actions people take now — including wearing facial coverings and maintaining physical distance from others — “is going to determine what this virus looks like in the fall.”

Last week, an enhanced statewide order took effect that requires businesses to refuse service to customers who don’t wear facial coverings. That order builds on previous mask requirements issued last month.

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