Students head back to school during high COVID transmission: Why health leaders say it’s safe

OLYMPIA, Wash. – In a three-week span, 1.3 million students will be back in class across Washington, according to the deputy superintendent of public instruction. This is all happening during a time when coronavirus transmission is high in communities throughout the state. It could be scary for some parents to send their students back, but health leaders said in-person learning is needed.

Students 4 News Now spoke with Thursday said they are excited to be back in school again full-time. Some students said their mental health declined during the pandemic since they couldn’t see their friends or teachers.

“We know there are behavioral health impacts and social-emotional isolation of kids from their peers during COVID-19 and that has been significant,” said Dr. Umair Shah, the secretary of health for the state.

That is why the state required schools to reopen full-time this year. Schools started virtually in the Spokane area last year and eventually transitioned into full-time for some grade levels.

However, there were schools on the west side of Washington that were only virtual. In the spring, Governor Jay Inslee told all schools they had to open for some in-person instruction to help with students’ mental well-being.

RELATED: Dept. of Health: Safety protocols kept COVID transmission low in Washington schools

While kids were in class in-person last year in the Spokane area, the in-school transmission was low. Spokane Public Schools saw a total of 12 cases where that happened in school buildings.

Safety measures such as masks and social distancing helped keep students safe. While those mitigations are in place at schools, health experts know the risk for catching COVID in that scenario isn’t zero.

All the health leaders that spoke on Thursday said all of their children are back in school even as the Delta variant continues to spread.

“I understand that risk, but the benefits so outweighs the risk and the things we can do to help mitigate that as previously talked about that. It’s time. It’s time to get our kids back into school,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist with the state department of health.

While in-school transmission remained low last year, students were contracting the virus while outside of class.

“Anytime we had people coming together, there are areas for the potential for transmission. That is absolutely the case,” Shah said.

One way to help keep kids in school and minimize the spread of COVID is to get vaccinated, Shah said. With the state requiring vaccines for school staff, health leaders said they want to do what they can to keep those unable to get vaccinated safely. However, kids under 12 are still ineligible to get vaccinated.

Another way people can help minimize COVID spread is to limit travel and visits to crowded places. He said to keep gatherings and playdates small and outside. Masks are recommended when families gather with others who are not from their households. He also added people should get tested when they feel sick.

“When we work together, we can, and will, have a successful school year,” Shah said.

Health leaders will continue to closely watch school transmission as the year carries on. Shah said they will also be updating guidelines during the school year if needed.

READ: Pandemic changes won’t sway goal to support students, SPS superintendent says

RELATED: ‘It’s really refreshing for me’: Spokane students head back to school full time