As schools open for the 2021-22 school year, families have decisions to make about health and safety. This article provides information and resources to address some key questions:
- What measures are schools required to take to keep children and staff safe?
- What COVID precautions should our family consider?
- What should we do if returning to in person school doesn’t feel safe for our family?
- Will schools address children’s social and emotional well-being after everything that has happened?
This article provides information to address these questions and includes state and federal resources to support families in decision making.
Overall priorities at the state and national level include:
- Health and physical safety by following a layered approach with COVID protocols for masking and hygiene to the maximum practical extent
- Mental health and social emotional learning support for all students, with state and federal funds to enable schools to hire additional staff focused on student well-being
- Accelerated academics to help students recover from interrupted learning (See PAVE’s article on Recovery Services)
These priorities are listed in the US Department of Education’s Return to School Roadmap, which includes this guidance in its opening paragraphs:
“We must welcome families back in authentically, listen and seek to understand their concerns, and respond to their needs, so that all families feel comfortable sending their students to school this fall. As we start the 2021-2022 school year, schools and communities must address gaps that were exacerbated by the pandemic and build our education system back better than before.”
What measures are schools required to take to keep children and staff safe?
Washington’s Department of Health (DOH) issued a 13-page document on July 28, 2021, to detail requirements for the 2021-2022 school year. The state’s guidance mirrors recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Priority is to minimize virus transmission while maximizing in-person learning.
Families with questions or who need access to the DOH information in another format are encouraged to contact the COVID-19 Information hotline: 1-800-525-0127. Hours are 6 am-6 pm, with additional hours until 10 pm on Mondays. For interpretative services, press # when they answer and say your language. To request DOH information in another format, call 1-800-525-0127. Deaf or hard of hearing customers, please call 711 (Washington Relay) or email email@example.com.
Here are key points from Washington’s DOH guidance:
- Vaccination is recommended for anyone 12 and older, and schools must verify the vaccination status of staff and faculty as required by Labor and Industry. According to DOH, “Schools should promote vaccinations for eligible students, teachers, staff, and families.”
- Face coverings are required for all students and staff indoors and during school transportation. Exemptions are made for “people with a medical condition, mental health condition, developmental or cognitive condition, or disability that prevents wearing a face covering.”
- Physical distancing of three feet or more is recommended indoors as practical: “Physical distancing requirements should not prevent a school from offering full-time, in person learning to all students….”
- Schools must maintain good ventilation: “Offer more outside time, open windows often, and adjust the HVAC system to allow the maximum amount of outside air to enter the program space and increase air filtration.”
- Schools are tasked to teach and manage proper hygiene, including frequent handwashing and “respiratory etiquette” (cover coughs and sneezes/wash hands after blowing nose, etc.) to minimize viral spread: “Some students with disabilities might need assistance with handwashing and respiratory etiquette behaviors.”
- Schools must clean and disinfect surfaces and spaces frequently, in accordance with guidance from the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- Symptomatic students and staff are asked to stay home and seek a medical evaluation before returning to school.
- Schools must ensure students and staff can access timely COVID testing.
- Schools are recommended to screen students who are not fully vaccinated at least weekly when community transmission is at moderate or higher levels. In accordance with CDC guidance, the state is not recommending fully vaccinated people for routine screening. Additional testing is recommended for athletes, coaches, and others engaged in contact sports or activities such as singing, which generates aerosols from the mouth that can spread virus.
- Isolation of ill individuals is required to be in a space reserved for first aid or a separated room with an open window or good ventilation: “If no appropriate indoor space is available and the child can be supervised and made comfortable, an outdoor setting is an acceptable emergency alternative if weather and privacy permitting.”
- If a person tests positive for COVID, here’s when they can return to school:
- 10 days since they first got sick (up to 20 days for severe illness or if immunocompromised)
- 24 hours after fever is gone
- Symptoms have improved
Students who need to stay home have educational rights
The CDC provides a Flow Chart to direct schools, students, and families about what to do if a student becomes ill at school.
Schools are asked to keep records about people who are exposed to others who are sick. If the person who was exposed to illness has not been vaccinated, they will need to stay home/quarantine themselves until it’s clear they aren’t getting sick. If the person exposed to COVID has been vaccinated or has recovered from a past COVID infection, they don’t have to quarantine if they aren’t sick. Schools are required to release information about COVID-19 cases to local public health officials as part of a case or outbreak investigation.
A student staying home sick has the right to educational access, including special education services that are accessible and support progress toward educational goals. According to DOH, “Schools must have a response and communication plan in place that includes communication with staff, families, their school district, and their local health jurisdiction. Schools should prepare for instructing students and their families who are excluded from school due to illness or quarantine in accordance with all federal and state laws.”
What COVID precautions should our family consider?
The CDC provides guidance for families for talking about COVID-19 and slowing its spread. Here are a few ideas:
- Reassure children that they are safe. Share how you deal with your stress, so they learn to cope from you. If a child is anxious, reduce exposure to pandemic topics in the media.
- Avoid language that might blame others and lead to stigma.
- Provide information that is truthful and appropriate for the age and developmental level of the child. Use the information in this article to share a few ideas about how school might have new rules for protecting everyone.
- Seek trusted information about vaccines to make an informed decision about who in the family can and should be vaccinated. The CDC provides a three-minute video with overview information, and Family Voices of Washington provides an article with more detail to support decision making. To find a vaccination site in your area, go to COVIDWA.com or call 1-833-VAX-HELP (833-829-4357). Language assistance is available. You can also text your zip code to 438-829 for vaccine locations near you.
- Teach everyday actions to reduce the spread of germs. Remind children to wash hands frequently and to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow.
- Practice mask wearing and choose face coverings that will work all day at school. If appropriate, involve students in a plan to keep the face coverings clean and ready for each school day. If a child’s disability prevents mask wearing, talk about why that will be okay and prepare to share disability specific information with school staff. DOH provides guidance about mask wearing and exemptions in an Order from the Secretary of Health.
What should we do if returning to in person school doesn’t feel safe for our family?
The U.S. Department of Education with the CDC presented at a Parent Town Hall on July 29, 2021. During the virtual event, Department of Education staff responded to a question by a parent who wanted her child to keep learning from home for health and safety reasons. The parent was reminded that the department provides guidance and best practice strategies but does not regulate state educational agencies or local districts.
The advice was to ask for a meeting with school and/or district staff to discuss a plan for ongoing distance learning. If a workable plan isn’t developed, families are advised to contact their state educational agency (OSPI in Washington), local school board, or governor’s office. Note that Washington is a local control state, so individual districts are responsible to write their own policies and procedures within the limits of state and federal law.
No student rights are waived due to the pandemic, and students have levels of educational protections depending on their circumstances. Every child has the right to a free public education, through Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Students with disabilities have the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that is equitable, accessible and designed to meet their individualized needs. The right to FAPE is protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
If a student is eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the IEP team is responsible to make decisions about the best placement for a student to receive FAPE. FAPE requirements include the right to an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable progress appropriate in light of the student’s circumstances.
If family caregivers believe that home-based instruction is necessary for safety and well-being, then the IEP team must consider the family’s request and document its decision process through Prior Written Notice (PWN). If the school makes a decision that the family disagrees with, parents of children with disabilities have Procedural Safeguards that protect their right to mediation or a complaint process.
Additionally, Washington families can contact their local school board, which is required to conduct its work through an Open Meeting process that allows for public comment. The Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO) provides guidance to families and schools that need support to reach agreement.
Will schools address social and emotional well-being?
Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has made clear in its guidance that student well-being is a priority as schools reopen. State and federal dollars, including those from the American Rescue Plan, enable schools to hire staff such as nurses and counselors to support student well-being.
OSPI provides a guidebook: Academic and Student Well-Being Recovery Plan: Planning Guide 2021 For School Districts, Tribal Compact Schools, and Charter Schools. Included is information about how state and federal dollars are awarded based on formal plans submitted by districts.
In their plans, districts must include statements about how student well-being will be supported. Districts are asked to prioritize social emotional learning and equity issues related to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on different populations.
Families impacted by trauma, death, or other challenges during the pandemic can review their district’s Recovery Plan and consider whether their student’s needs are likely to be met. If there are concerns, family members can meet with school and district staff to request a more individualized approach. For students with IEPs, needs related to specific losses and trauma can be discussed in the context of an IEP Recovery Services plan. For more information about Recovery Services, see PAVE’s article: Recovery Services: What Families Need to Know as Schools Reopen.
Families who have experienced elevated stress due to COVID and want more support can reach out to the Washington Listens help line: 1-833-681-0211.
PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center (F2F) provides direct assistance for questions related to health and wellness, insurance, and access to medical services. For questions about school-based services, our Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff can help. Click Get Help from our home page at wapave.org to request individualized support.