Parents question school safety as many children in Washington state return to school for the first time in over a year


We are entering a third school year marked by the pandemic.

As the new school year begins, thousands of Washington children will be taking school buses, finding their desks, and settling down for lunch with their peers. Face-to-face learning will once again be ubiquitous, even if being fully immunized is not: only 40% of 12 to 15 year olds in Washington are vaccinated, as are 47% of 16 and 17 year olds. A vaccine for young children is not expected until mid-winter.

But just as schools are trying to get back to normal, the pandemic is taking a dizzying direction. The more virulent delta variant is pushing the number of cases to new heights – just as school safety measures, like grouping small numbers of students into learning cohorts, have gone. This is the first time in over a year that most schools in the Puget Sound area have taught all of their students at the same time.

The Seattle Times turns to experts to answer readers’ most pressing questions. Last week, experts offered advice on selecting the best masks for children, responding to children’s anxieties, and upholding school safety mandates. Now that school is a few days away, families are wondering about mask policies and what will happen if cases arise in classrooms.

We answer these questions and more here.

How can caregivers make it easier for their children to start school this fall?

Many children have settled into a new “routine” when schools are closed: they went to bed late, slept, found solace in video games or Netflix, or spent time indoors instead of. exercise or go out.

Experts say it’s time for a reset. “Are (children) getting enough sleep, are they eating regular meals, are they exercising regularly?” Said Lisa Barrois, clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. These are all questions caregivers need to ask themselves as their children get back to regular school schedule. Good sleep can have a significant effect on a child’s mood and learning ability, she said. Families should therefore consider setting consistent sleep and wake times.

The pandemic proved the importance of maintaining a routine: Children who had structure in their daily lives were protected from developing serious mental health problems, new research shows.

Caregivers should also model ways to stay calm or overcome anxiety, Barrois said. “It is helpful if we show our children that we can be stressed and that we can cope with it effectively,” she said. “It helps them learn to manage their stress. “

Masks are mandatory. What will schools do if children refuse to wear one?

Not all children will voluntarily wear their masks. And some parents are against masking.

But everyone – regardless of age or vaccination status – is required to wear a mask inside the school this year. State officials say they expect schools to treat defiant children or parents as they would in any other school discipline scenario. They can give a warning to a child, send a note home, or call a caregiver to speak one-on-one. Ultimately, according to state education officials, schools may have to exclude children from the classroom if they refuse to wear a mask.

Schools have a new incentive to follow the rules: they could face serious financial consequences. In late August, the state’s top education official said schools that willfully violate the mask’s mandate – or a new vaccine requirement for school workers – risked losing state funding.

Does wearing a mask interfere with a child’s ability to socialize or learn?

Wearing a mask is a bit like wearing sunglasses, said Barrois. When talking to someone with their eyes and eyebrows covered, it may be more difficult to read their expressions. But people wearing sunglasses – or those wearing a mask – often send nonverbal signals to signal what they are feeling or what emotion they are trying to express.

“We now have over a year of data that children are able to be themselves and communicate quite effectively when wearing masks,” she said. “I don’t think there is any need to worry.”

Will state officials demand that children get vaccinated against COVID-19?

To attend a public school in Washington, kids must be up to date on a long list of clichés. The COVID-19 vaccine is not one of them.

School vaccine requirements are set by the Washington State Board of Health, which develops many state public health rules and regulations. This summer, the board said it would not need the COVID-19 vaccine because it was not fully cleared by the United States Food and Drug Administration; In late August, the FDA approved Pfizer’s vaccine for people 16 and older.

Despite the vaccine’s approval, state council officials said last week they were maintaining their position. They won’t require eligible schoolchildren to get vaccinated – at least for now. The next time the board might discuss changes to its rules is at its meeting in mid-October.

It’s a different story for adults. In August, Governor Jay Inslee ordered all employees in public, private and chartered schools to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 18.

Will caregivers be able to find out if their child’s teacher, bus driver, or other school employee is vaccinated?

In short, no.

School employees, volunteers and visitors must be fully immunized, but Inslee has left the option for adults to request medical and religious exemptions. It is therefore possible that not all adults inside school buildings are vaccinated against COVID-19.

The vaccination status of a school employee is protected by staff confidentiality rules. So parents or caregivers won’t necessarily know if their child’s teacher is vaccinated, said Katy Payne, a spokesperson for the Washington Department of Education. School districts may require unvaccinated employees to take certain safety measures, such as taking a COVID-19 test regularly. But decisions like this are up to individual school districts.

What will happen if there is a large outbreak of COVID-19 at school?

It depends. All school districts must notify public health officials when cases arise. But how an individual district responds to an outbreak depends on the directions or mandates of local health authorities.

Schools have options. For example, they may require students or staff to stay home, exclude entire classes of children, switch to a hybrid schedule, or stop in-person learning altogether.

To find out when and where outbreaks occur, the state keeps an ongoing diary. According to a July state report, schools recorded 310 epidemics – involving 1,171 people – from August 2020 to the end of June 2021. Most of these epidemics were small: around 71% concerned only two or three cases. Some neighborhoods, including Seattle Public Schools, have created online dashboards to track cases.

Almost 40% of all outbreaks in the last school year were recorded in the months after Inslee ordered schools to reopen this year. Schools recorded 63 outbreaks in May and 57 in June.

Why are online offerings uneven across districts this school year?

When Inslee ordered school buildings to reopen last March, he and other state officials sent a strong message: Children learn best when they are in person.

Distance learning has been a frustrating, if not harmful, experience for many students, according to many accounts. But some children have flourished and their families are hoping to continue online education this school year. Other families are concerned about the delta variant and want to delay going back to school until the number of cases drops or their children are eligible for a vaccine.

However, school districts are no longer obliged to provide alternatives to traditional in-person learning. Several districts have built virtual academies or other online programs, but not all districts have one.

Some districts with virtual programs allow children outside the geographic boundaries of the district to enroll; families living in a neighborhood without a distance education program can search for these types of programs and find transfer information on the site of the state education department.

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