Vaccines, testing and transmission rates: Reykdal shares framework for re-opening schools

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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal recently appeared on morning radio show (KIRO Radio 97.3 FM) to talk about what school will look like this Fall for the over one million K-12 public school students in Washington.

Since Gov. Jay Inslee closed schools in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, sorting through the various measurements and requirements needed to safely re-open schools has been a challenge for families. Many districts initially thought they could offer some form of in-person instruction in addition to remote, only to change to online only offerings when community health conditions and recommendations from local officials changed.

During his appearance, Superintendent Reykdal talked about the longer game and re-opening schools, namely, what will it take for districts to return to in-person learning and how will we know if we’re making progress towards that goal. Will families have to wait for a vaccine? Can students and teachers return prior to a vaccine if certain community health goals are met?

Here is a transcript of the questions/answers that talk directly about those topics. Note that we added emphasis to spotlight aspects addressing reopening criteria, and in one answer shortened it where other topics were also covered.

Let us know in the comments what you think. Is Superintendent Reykdal trying to prepare us for the possibility that schools won’t reopen absent a vaccine? Or are we making enough progress on transmission rates so that by January we should begin to see some level of reopening in person?

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(QUESTION) Based on what you’re seeing around the nation, we’ll just point to Georgia, for example, as we’ve heard, that one school that had, you know, 900 students and staff now in quarantine because of an outbreak after that picture went viral where there was a crowded hallway and not much mask wearing. When you see something like that just days into their school year, do you really believe in your heart schools could reopen at any point this year or early next year without a vaccine?

(REYKDAL) I think there are community transmission rates in data that would make it possible. You saw what the governor and DOH did. And I always remind folks I have no authority to close or open schools forcibly. The governor, however, made that decision last spring when he believed the cases were too high and now there’s a framework for districts in high risk counties, medium or low risk counties.

Virtually all districts in high and medium are starting remotely, but we do have some districts around the state who are in low risk based on their viral loads in their communities, and they are opening in hybrid models or fully face to face. And so that local decision remains local control. But yeah, our state, unfortunately had this tremendous lowering of cases through April and May and things were looking very positive and then at the end of May and the beginning of June, cases started to spike up again. States around the country who tried to do some modified openings have seen cases really take off in some of their schools. And so mass congregate settings are not going to work in the short term.

But smaller groups, one to one supports in these hybrid models can be effective. I looked at 14 or 15 other countries around the world, some did not do it very well at all, and then some have been really rigorous about their process and they’ve had some limited success.

(QUESTION) So you do see schools, in your opinion, being able to reopen in counties like Snohomish, King or Pierce without a vaccine?

(REYKDAL) Yeah, but right now, we don’t see the larger societal behavior bringing those numbers down to get them out of high and medium risk, and if that isn’t the case, I think it’s going to be hard for those communities to accept that. But it’s a community decision and is a local decision.

I think instead we work together to try to solve what we can with the best model forward, keep getting better at it and get a darn vaccine.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal

(QUESTION) Is anybody seriously exploring the idea of paying parents to homeschool their kids?

(REYKDAL) Our statutes don’t allow for that, but we have a lot of online providers, and families can choose those. You definitely have a right in this state to pull your child out and do a homeschool model. And in some communities, they’ve figured out how to make sure that family is supplied with really good quality resources. And so there’s an entire homeschool network in our state that has done really hard work creating quality materials for their students….

I think instead we work together to try to solve what we can with the best model forward, keep getting better at it and get a darn vaccine. We’ve got many companies in stage three trials. I will tell you the very first thing that could happen if the federal administration was really serious about this is just uniform testing everywhere and short-term turnaround like we were Germany testing kids every day, every three or four days. We could be back to school very quickly.

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You can listen to the full interview on Seattle’s Morning News Dave Ross show at this link (about 10 minutes long).