Letter from Chris Reykdal, Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction

Fall 2021–22 K–12 DOH Requirements

Greetings Superintendents and Education Partners:

Earlier this morning Governor Inslee announced the extension of our face covering requirement for all staff and students working in educational facilities where students are present. This requirement applies to both unvaccinated and vaccinated students and staff.

If you have been following credible news sources, you know that the Delta variant is highly transmissible and there is growing evidence that vaccinated individuals may be carrying significant viral loads. The good news is that vaccines remain the most powerful way to avoid severe illness and hospitalization. Sadly, a large share of adults and an even larger percent of our students who are eligible for the vaccine have not embraced this opportunity yet. Cases and hospitalizations are on the rise again, and so far in this pandemic, cases and hospitalizations are a precursor to an uptick in the loss of life.

The Governor and DOH will continue to review the data, subsequent variants, and the effectiveness of layered mitigation strategies for any possibility that we can loosen masking requirements. You can find an archive of the Governor’s press availability here. And here is the link to the updated fall DOH school guidance.

The irony in our state and across the country is that the communities with the greatest loss of life per 100,000 population remain the places that are most hesitant to get the vaccine or wear masks. Some states have turned masking decisions over to local school boards. A few states have banned local jurisdictions from adopting layered, evidence-based health mitigation strategies, and the result has been decisions based less and less on public health metrics and science, and more and more on the local political climate. Please make it very clear to your communities that the masking decision is not a choice being left to local school boards. Washington state continues to take a public health approach to this. This approach has resulted in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths at half of the U.S. average on a per 100,000 population.

I know many stakeholders wanted to eliminate mask mandates this fall. I believe in time we can move towards a family choice about this particular preventative measure, but not until there is much higher evidence that mask removal won’t spike cases, close school buildings, or contribute to additional deadly variants.

I also know many families across the state wanted this mask information as they determine whether to return their students to classrooms this fall. We expect there will be additional impacts on enrollments in some communities because of this decision. We will work with the Governor and the Legislature to address potential budget impacts that may result from lower enrollments. In the meantime, districts should plan for these financial impacts by using deliberate caution right now in hiring and other expenditures. There is no guarantee that the Legislature will attempt to make districts whole for the loss of state funds. Federal ESSER funds can plug holes in many cases to ensure a continuity of services and supports, but those funds are one-time in nature and should not be used to make long-term budget commitments.

While masks will be required to start our school year, the expectation remains that EVERY family that wants a full-time, in-person learning experience will be given that opportunity. OSPI will not send basic education funding to districts who attempt to force hybrid schedules or remote learning mandates on all students. The 2021–22 school year will look a little different with masks and other continuing health mitigation strategies, but make no mistake, we have turned the corner and the incredible in-person learning model that has propelled our state to excellence in the past is the primary learning model for this year and beyond. Districts may offer remote learning models, consistent with earlier guidance, for those families that do not choose an in-person option.

Finally, you may be reading a lot about the federal government, private employers, and other organizations mandating vaccines or routine COVID testing as a condition of employment. That is not currently the requirement of state employees or school district employees, nor do we have a COVID vaccine requirement for students, and that is not expected this year. Again, vaccines for those who are eligible remain the most powerful way to avoid COVID infections and severe illness. Please continue your efforts to encourage vaccinations for as many of your eligible students and staff as you can.

Thank you once again for your leadership throughout the pandemic. At the heart of our republic is our commitment to student learning. Formal systems are tested in moments like these, no doubt. Our job is not about replicating static systems, however, it’s about moving learning forward for each and every student no matter the obstacles and challenges. We have built a functioning democracy and provided broad economic opportunity precisely because education has endured and overcome in the most complicated of times. Keep leading, maintain high expectations, and challenge everyone around you to rise to this moment with grace, dignity, and credible information.

Chris Reykdal

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