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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Sanchez

Inslee signs emergency proclamation requiring in-person education opportunities for public schools

- Olympia, WA

Gov. Jay Inslee today signed an emergency proclamation prohibiting all public K-12 schools in Washington from failing to provide opportunities in both remote instruction and on-campus, in-person instruction. The proclamation aims to address the alarming educational inequities and mental health concerns among students as a result of prolonged remote education.

“This has been a long year for our state’s students and their families. They have lived with fear and uncertainty,” Inslee said during a press conference Friday. “The youth mental health crisis has become significantly worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is time to provide an in-person learning option to help students who need it.”

Returning to the classroom

Under the proclamation, schools will be allowed to stagger the reintroduction of students to campus. Schools will be expected to provide an in-person learning option that equates to at least 30% of instructional time by two key deadlines:

  • April 5: All students in kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade (depending on the school district) must be offered a hybrid option.

  • April 19: All remaining K-12 students must be offered a hybrid option.

In addition, schools must offer students at least two days per week of on-campus, in-person instruction.

As schools open, they must adhere to physical distancing, masking and environmental cleaning requirements set out by the state Department of Health (DOH) and worker safety requirements issued by the state Department of Labor and Industries. This proclamation also orders the state Health Care Authority and DOH to immediately begin work on recommendations on how to support the behavioral health needs of our children and youth over the next six to 12 months, and to address and triage the full spectrum of rising pediatric behavioral health needs.

Under the Governor's emergency proclamation, there is still the option for families who want or need to leave their child in fully remote learning to do so. Some families and students prefer this option, or will still need it because the student, or a member of the family is at high risk for severe COVID. Additionally, there are students who prefer remote learning for mental health reasons. The effects of COVID-19 have not been felt equitably across the student population. English language learner students and students whose families are experiencing poverty saw absence rates at twice that of the general population.

“The data and science are clear: With health and safety measures in place, schools can safely provide in-person learning for their students. We also know our in-person learning environment provides students with comprehensive supports that many really need right now. I support this directive and am thankful for the governor’s leadership,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said.

Superintendent Reykdal sent a letter to school superintendents statewide on Friday. Reykdal’s office also created a document to answer questions on the school re-opening directive.

“Students and their families have struggled in this pandemic. Our teachers and school districts have been challenged like never before. While working remotely, they have had to support the academic and social emotional development of their students. For many, in person contact can and will have significant positive impact. I know I am joined by my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in our support and enthusiasm for this decision. With this move, we are doing what is best for students and balancing the health and safety of our communities,” said Sen. Lisa Wellman, chair, Early Learning and K -12 Education Committee.

A behavioral health crisis

Washington’s students are facing unprecedented behavioral health crises as a result of the ongoing global pandemic, and prolonged isolation and educational gaps resulting from the lack of in-person learning. A return to campus, even if just part-time, will both help students with their education and grades.

“Schools provide a range of health benefits for our children. These include the development of social and emotional skills, nutritional services, and access to behavioral health services. Governor Inslee’s announcement means all families will have an option for in-person instruction and services in a way that protects the comprehensive health and well-being of students across the state, in addition to protecting students, staff, and the broader community from COVID-19,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, Deputy Secretary for the COVID-19 response.

Since the physical closure of schools, pediatricians are seeing a significant increase in youth with eating disorders, anxiety, mood disorders, and depression with suicidal thoughts or self-harm behaviors. Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane has reported a 73% increase in acute care admissions to its Inpatient Adolescent Psychiatric Unit, and a 68% increase in admissions to the General Pediatric Floor for behavioral health related issues.

These increases aren’t isolated to Sacred Heart. Hospitals all across the state, including Swedish Medical Center, Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Seattle Children’s Hospital have all reported similar outcomes.

“We now have a public health crisis secondary to keeping kids out of school. Keeping them out of school any longer will result in gaps to their educational attainment, which they may not be able to overcome in their lifetime. Our kids are not faring well, and their incredible resilience continues to deteriorate the longer we keep access to in-person school closed. These profound losses and risks children and adolescents have experienced during this pandemic can be modified, lessened, or even overcome, if we simply get safely back to school, as quickly and as often as possible,” said Dr. Peter Asante, pediatrician, board member, Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The data we have from hospitals and health care systems across the state confirms the experiences of pediatric health care providers, who are seeing a large and alarming increase in the number of children and adolescents with new or significantly worsened mental health issues, depression, anxiety, and suicidality, including suicide attempts. We cannot wait any longer to repair the systems that help support children and families, and education is one of the most critical of those systems. We know from nationwide data and experiences that return to in-person learning can be done in a way that is safe for both students and staff,” said Elizabeth Meade, MD, president, Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Moving forward

Inslee’s emergency proclamation reads, in part:

“Increasing the option to return to school facilities for all K-12 students will help to prevent or curtail mental and behavioral health issues for many students by reducing isolation and improving in-person access to educators, school personnel, mentors and peers, but it is not a panacea for the long-standing need for accessible behavioral health services and supports for our children and youth. It is only a part of the solution to addressing mental and behavioral health issues for children and youth, many of whom will also need greater access to and availability of behavioral health services and supports, in and outside of schools.”

The emergency proclamation comes almost exactly a year since the governor, with the support of Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, closed schools in March 2020, in response to rapidly increasing COVID-19 case counts in the state.

“Educators have been creative and have worked very diligently to provide remote learning and the very best for all their students. But it is clear that there is no substitute for in-classroom learning and interaction with other children and caring adults, both for educational outcomes and the behavioral and physical health of students,” Inslee said. “It is time to return to the classroom.”

Read the full emergency proclamation here.

Read Q & A on the directive, prepared by OSPI.

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