State Officials Push School Reopening Plan, Drawing on Data From Studies of Predominantly White Student Groups in Handful of U.S. Studies

by Carolyn Bick

Washington State has expanded the number of days school districts may offer in-person learning, but teachers will not be moved into earlier phases of vaccination, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press conference on Feb. 16. Inslee did not immediately provide details on the number of days included in the increase. The State’s rationale for encouraging in-person learning without ensuring that all teachers are vaccinated is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not included vaccinating teachers in its base-level guidance that can help to determine whether in-person learning is safe. The State will allow parents to keep their children on remote learning plans, if they so choose.

In his announcement, Inslee pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recently updated publication regarding operational strategy for schools to open for in-person learning. He said that the CDC’s guidance “broadly aligns” with the State’s suggestions and that the CDC has “also made very clear that mass vaccination of our teachers is not a prerequisite to going back to school.”

In its guidance, the CDC also says that “[t]he following public health efforts provide additional layers of COVID-19 prevention in schools” and lists “[t]esting to identify individuals with a SARS-CoV-2 infection to limit transmission and outbreaks” and “[v]accination for teachers, staff, and in communities as soon as supply allows.” 

According to the State’s vaccination plan, it is unclear when teachers will receive the vaccine. Though Inslee said that some teachers are eligible to receive the vaccine right now and that more teachers will be included in the next phase of vaccinations — Phase 1B, Tier 2 — he did not mention whether or not this means that all teachers will be eligible. The State’s vaccination plan states that only people 50 years and older who work in congregate settings, including classrooms, will be eligible for vaccination in Phase 1B, Tier 2. Teachers younger than 50 years old will not be able to receive vaccines until Phase 1B, Tier 4. 

It is unclear whether the State will change this plan, based on vaccine availability, but the Biden administration announced today that it would be delivering a total of 13.5 million doses to states per week, up from 11 million per week previously. Inslee said that Washington State will be getting roughly 2% of those vaccines per week. 

In an effort to help encourage confidence in expanded reopening plans, Inslee said that the State Department of Health (DOH) will be expanding its school testing pilot program. The program is optional, and thus far has 11 participating school districts, according to a DOH press release sent out on Feb. 16 — it is unclear whether Seattle Public Schools has signed on. The expansion will allow 48 more school districts to join. If a district joins, it will have access to a testing strategist, courtesy of the Health Commons Project, which has been involved in designing and implementing testing sites and strategies throughout the state since the start of the pandemic.

“The program is voluntary, flexible and, as always, decisions about when and how to expand in-person learning are up to each school district, working with their local health jurisdictions. The playbook offers a range of COVID-19 testing options districts can choose from,” the press release said, referring to the DOH’s newly released Learn to Return handbook.

The handbook includes mitigation strategies, contingency planning, messaging approaches and talking points, an overview of the different kinds of testing available, and monitoring and decision-making tools for districts. 

The handbook also points to North Carolina and Wisconsin as part of the evidence for a safe return to in-person learning in a hybrid model that combines remote and in-person learning.

In North Carolina, the state’s 115 school districts were all given the option to return to in-person learning as part of a hybrid model, beginning in August 2020. Researchers from the American Academy of Pediatrics carried out a study of novel coronavirus transmission in the state’s school districts that agreed to participate. The researchers found “extremely limited within-school secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2, determined by contact tracing” in the first nine weeks of these schools being open, but it should be noted that fewer than half of the 115 school districts in North Carolina participated in the study. Of those, just 11 “were open for in-person instruction for all 9 weeks of the first quarter and agreed to track incidence and secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2” and had more white students than BIPOC students. 

In the Wisconsin study, the 17 participating schools were located in Wood County, a rural school district. Of the students studied, 92% of the student body was white and just 10.7% of the participating students met the poverty threshold.

People living in poverty tend to have more health problems compared with wealthier people for many reasons, including lack of adequate access to health care and lack of comprehensive health insurance. In the context of the novel coronavirus, this means that people who live in poverty are less likely to be able to access or afford COVID-specific care and are more likely to die of the disease. People who tend to live in poverty often belong to the same groups who are most exposed to the novel coronavirus and who face the greatest risk of death from COVID-19. Moreover, Black, Latinx, and Asian individuals tend to have lower levels of health insurance coverage overall, with Latinx people facing the most barriers to coverage.

It has been demonstrated that Black people and Latinx people in particular are more likely to contract the novel coronavirus and die of COVID-19 and are more likely to live in multigenerational households, which means that older people are more likely to be exposed to infection if a younger family member brings home the virus. The article referenced in the handbook to support the idea that children do not act as primary viral transmitters does not go into detail about the makeup of the families followed in these studies, and most of the studies were conducted on families living outside the United States. The only United States study included in the article focuses solely on the severity of COVID-19 in children and does not include race or household demographics data.

While Inslee and health officials have repeated the fact that people aged 50 and older who live in multigenerational households are eligible to get vaccinated, many people trying to get the vaccine have reported difficulties in scheduling a slot to get it.

It should also be noted that the DOH’s pilot program was implemented before the arrival of a new coronavirus variant in the state. The variant, known as B.1.1.7, is much more contagious and may be 35% deadlier than the original novel coronavirus. Though the latter data is based on a preprint study, it corresponds with earlier-reported information from the United Kingdom’s government officials. Fifteen cases of this variant have been detected in at least three Washington State counties: King County, Snohomish County, and Pierce County.
On Feb. 1, those same three counties — King, Snohomish, and Pierce — became eligible to move into Phase 2 of the State’s reopening plan, which officials developed and put in place before the arrival of the B.1.1.7 variant. Inslee and State health officials have thus far appeared to be reluctant to focus on the arrival of this variant, though local health officials like Public Health Seattle — King County’s Health Officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, have been vocal about their concerns that the variant is going to be like “a tsunami.”

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You may reach them here, and can check out their work here and here.

Featured Image: Still image of a Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction interactive map of Washington state’s current school reopening data.

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