Washington has been one of a small handful of states to keep indoor mask mandates in place, and the state will be more of an outlier by the end of the month, when all states and jurisdictions except Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Hawaii and Puerto Rico will have dropped the requirement for masks in indoor public places. Oregon has said it will eliminate the mandate for indoor spaces and schools at the end of March.
Gov. Jay Inslee took one step last week, lifting the mask mandate at outdoor events with 500 or more people starting Feb. 18. A date for lifting other mask mandates could be announced this week, he said at a Feb. 9 news conference.
“The day is coming very soon when we do not have a broad mask mandate for indoor public spaces or for our schools. We’re going to do that by following the science to make the right decision,” Inslee said.
With hospitalization rates dropping across the state, Inslee also lifted the ban on elective surgery as of Feb. 17.
Inslee emphasized that Washington bases these decisions on data and won’t be “stampeded” by actions in other states or by political pressure. Washington’s health officials agree with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that it’s too soon to lift these mandates, he said.
But the data are encouraging, Inslee said. Washington is seeing the same pattern as other states and countries in the rapid steep rise – and rapid decline – of the Omicron variant, prompting researchers to predict “extremely low numbers” in the first week of March, Inslee said.
Cases in Okanogan County started to drop at the end of January, about two weeks after the state’s overall decline, according to the state Department of Health. Okanogan County Public Health recorded 286 COVID cases from Feb. 2 to 8, compared to 587 in the previous seven days. Public Health reported two more deaths from the disease, a woman in her 50s, and a man in his 60s.
Republican legislators including 12th District Reps. Mike Steele and Keith Goehner urged Inslee last week to lift mask mandates and reconsider emergency proclamations and orders that restrict Washingtonians’ actions and movements.
State superintendent: drop masks in schools
In a letter to Inslee last week, Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal urged the governor to lift the school mask mandate. “As part of the transition from pandemic to endemic, I believe it is safe and timely to eliminate the statewide masking requirement for students,” he wrote.
“When there was limited or no access to vaccines or rapid tests and rates of hospitalizations and mortalities were high, mandatory face coverings were an essential part of the larger community mitigation strategy – masks worked! However, universal masking impacted the learning environment,” Reykdal wrote.
Schools should be able to rely on rapid on-site testing to quickly identify and isolate students and staff with COVID infections, and on decisions by local health officers based on local infection rates and risks, Reykdal said.
The state’s teacher’s union responded with caution, noting that the CDC still endorses universal masking. “Any change to masking guidelines must come after clear evidence of a significant statewide decline in the COVID rate,” the Washington Education Association said.
The value of masks for students has long been a matter of debate. Covering the lower half of the face can reduce the ability to communicate, interpret, and mimic expressions, although there are different conclusions about the effect on social and emotion development, according to one study.
On the other hand, masks allowed schools to resume in-person education, which helped address other barriers in the development of academic and social and emotional skills, according to Justina Schlund at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
Rich and poor school districts see different impacts from COVID
By Marcy Stamper
The realities and contradictions of COVID’s effect on education were in stark focus in a phone conference last week between three Washington school superintendents, Sen. Maria Cantwell, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, and representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable, who was chosen to represent 200 small rural school districts.
Venable told the senator and secretary that he was honored to represent small districts, but, because the Methow Valley is “property-rich,” this district has had many more resources to keep staff and students safe during the pandemic.
Like other rural districts, the Methow has a lack of access to reliable broadband, Venable said. But Methow schools were able to reopen for in-person education before almost all districts in the state because the district could invest in smaller class sizes, expanded nursing services, improved air filtration, and tents to use as outdoor classrooms.
The Methow was also able to buy high-quality masks for all students and staff, conduct regular COVID testing of students and staff, and host vaccination clinics, he said.
And, at a time when many students are struggling with the mental health impacts of the pandemic, the Methow schools have full-time mental health counseling, Venable told the others on the call.
Meanwhile, his colleagues in rural districts across the state have faced challenges at every step, including aging facilities and HVAC systems, staff shortages, and limited nursing and mental health services, Venable said. Many districts had delayed access to tests, masks and essential protective equipment.
The participants in the call also discussed when the costs of masking begin to outweigh the benefits, Venable said. The CDC tends to emphasize guidelines based on quantitative research to reduce COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths, including the use of masks, one of the CDC representatives said.
From the perspective of parents and social-science researchers, these strategies come with a cost that’s not easily measured, particularly in terms of the social-emotional well-being of our youth, he said.