Some private Pierce County schools planning to return to school for in-person learning this fall are reversing course after a letter from the health department this week required both public and private schools to return this September with distance learning.
Dr. Anthony Chen, director of health at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, clarified recommendations made in July that encouraged remote learning until COVID-19 transmission levels decreased.
“I am not simply recommending but am requiring all schools to begin the school year using distance learning until COVID-19 disease activity in Pierce County decreases to a level safe to re-open schools for in-person learning,” Chen wrote to school leaders on Wednesday.
In an update on Friday, the health department said Chen has the authority to order schools not to open.
“We prefer to advise, but state law grants local health officers the power to ‘control and prevent the spread of any dangerous, contagious or infectious diseases’ and to ‘take such measures as he or she deems necessary in order to promote the public health,’” the letter said.
The health department did not immediately elaborate on what those measures might be in response to a News Tribune inquiry on Friday.
While all Pierce County public schools said in late July they would follow the health department’s recommendations, some private schools still had plans to reopen with some in-person learning, including Annie Wright Schools and Charles Wright Academy.
On Wednesday, Charles Wright Academy president Susan Rice sent a note to families in response to the health department’s requirement.
“This is a disappointment following Governor Inslee’s press conference where he stated that there would not be a state mandate ordering remote instruction, but a recommendation based on the levels of community transmission,” Rice said.
She added that 86 percent of Charles Wright families who took a survey wanted an in-person option.
“Regardless of this news, we have been planning diligently for both a robust remote option and a safe in-person option to offer families this fall in a dual mode,” Rice said. “We knew that in the event of an outbreak or change in the recommendation from health authorities we would also need to be able to pivot to a full remote option for all students.”
Annie Wright Schools also responded to the requirement on Wednesday.
“While we are disappointed that we will not have students learning on campus for the beginning of the school year, we also recognize the importance of our community’s health and safety. What this means is that the Lower School must join the Middle and Upper Schools in starting the year online,” according to the website.
Reached by phone Friday, Bellarmine Preparatory spokesperson Craig Coovert told The News Tribune that Bellarmine was already prepared to move online and had made the decision to do so earlier this month, prior to the health department’s new guidance.
Chen said in his Aug. 12 letter that the county’s daily case count remains at high levels, with 1,170 cases reported in the last 14 days. Pierce County’s 14-day case rate per 100,000 people is 130.
On Aug. 5, Gov. Jay Inslee released a new recommendation for returning to school depending on the case rates in each county. The recommendation for low-risk counties, with fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period, is for in-person learning at elementary schools and a hybrid approach of in-person and distance learning at middle schools and high schools. High-risk counties, with more than 75 cases per 100,000 people, are recommended for distance learning with the option for “limited in person learning in small groups,” such as students with disabilities or students living homeless.
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department interprets “small groups” to mean groups of five or less..