State Announces Distancing Change in Schools


At his March 25 press conference, Governor Inslee announced a Department of Health (DOH) change in social distancing requirements for students in Washington schools. Immediately below are the basic's from the press conference. Additional details are below.

  • Governor Inslee is ordering that the 3 foot distancing rule go into effect immediately, consistent with CDC guidelines. 
  • Washington DOH has aligned fully with CDC. Updated DOH Guidance is available here:
  • Staff and students must continue to wear masks and schools must continue to offer a remote learning option.
  • The Governor also announced an expectation that schools will resume a full-time in-person model in the fall. School districts should begin planning now.
Longer version:

Yesterday afternoon, Governor Inslee announced that our state’s physical distancing requirements within K–12 schools will be changed to follow the CDC guidance that was released on March 19. This option is effective immediately. (You may view the press conference on TVW here.)

Our state’s guidance previously followed the CDC recommendation to maintain a minimum of 6 feet of distance between students. Now that the CDC is recommending that the distance between students can be reduced to 3 feet, our Governor and Department of Health are changing our state’s safety protocols accordingly.

There are a few important components to this announcement:

  • The timeline of this change is as follows:
    • This goes into effect immediately. This means schools may begin reducing distance between students to a minimum of 3 feet now.
    • For the remainder of the 2020–21 school year, this is a minimum requirement, and school districts will retain the option to maintain 6 feet of distance.
    • Beginning this summer and carrying into the fall, districts will no longer have the option of using the 6-foot minimum between students. As long as trends of reductions in cases continue and a majority of our state’s adult population has received their COVID vaccine, schools will not need to continue placing students at 6 feet apart.
  • The CDC guidance only recommends a reduction of distance between students. The guidance for distance between staff, as well as between staff and student(s), remains 6 feet.
  • The CDC also recommends 6 feet of distance between students in certain circumstances, including, but not limited to:
    • When masks can’t be worn, such as when eating.
    • If they are middle and high school students that are not cohorted and the community transmission is above 200 per 100,000 population over a 14-day period or test positivity is above 10%.
    • When they are in situations with the express purpose of increased exhalation, such as choir, band, or physical education.
  • The science continues to support layered mitigation measures in schools, including the universal wearing of masks.

The Department of Health (DOH) has already updated their K–12 Schools Guidance for 2020–21 to reflect these changes, and it is expected that the Department of Labor & Industries’ Employer Health & Safety Requirements in School Scenarios guidance will be updated shortly.


ESD Talking Points:

Here are some talking points from the ESD 112 Communications Department:

  • The state of Washington Department of Health has adopted the three (3)-foot physical distancing guidance for students in classrooms. Welcoming more students into school buildings for in-person education will require careful planning and several things must be considered first, including:

    • Our local health departments must adopt the guidance, which they have indicated they will do; 

    • Allowing for three (3) feet of physical distance in classrooms is just one element of a larger plan that must be developed to allow for more students to attend school in person safely. The guidance still requires six (6) feet of physical distance between adults and students, when masks can’t be worn and during certain activities. All of these situations must be considered in planning efforts;

    • In addition to classrooms, school administrators and staff must explore the logistics of bringing more students into common spaces like hallways and lunch areas while still maintaining six (6) feet of physical distance between people;

    • Some school district leaders need to meet with local union leaders to amend and adopt new labor agreements.

  • The Washington DOH revised guidance to establish three (3) feet of physical distance between students in classrooms. Previous guidance encouraged establishing a physical distance of at least six (6) feet. 

    • There are still circumstances when the CDC continues to recommend six (6) feet of physical distance in school settings. These circumstances include:

      • Between adults (teachers and staff), and between adults and students, at all times in the school building. 

        • Several school studies have found that transmission between staff is more common than transmission between students and staff, and among students.

      • When masks cannot be worn, such as when eating.

      • During activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band, or sports and exercise. 

        • Move these activities outdoors or to large, well-ventilated spaces, when possible.

      • In common areas such as school lobbies and auditoriums.

      • When the rate of COVID-19 spread is high, if strict cohorting is not possible.

What does this announcement mean for local school districts?

  • Before welcoming additional students into classrooms for in-person learning under the three (3) foot guidance, there are a number of things that must take place, including:

    • School administrators and staff must update their COVID mitigation plans to safely allow more students to occupy a classroom at one time; 

    • School district leaders must meet with local union leaders to amend and adopt new labor agreements.

  • The CDC also released a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly report on March 19th, which suggests K-12 schools can reopen without leading to the rapid spread of COVID-19. 

    • An investigation of COVID-19 in Florida K-12 schools found that fewer than 1% of registered students had school-related COVID-19. 

    • Although COVID-19 can and does occur in schools, the results of the study indicate that in Florida, 60% of COVID-19 cases in school-aged children were not school-related, <1% of registered students were identified as having school-related COVID-19, and <11% of K–12 schools reported outbreaks. 

    • These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that COVID-19 transmission does not occur more frequently in schools when compared to noneducational settings. 

    • Trends in the United States also indicate that among school-aged children, school-based transmission is no higher than transmission outside the school setting, and the limited in-school transmission observed in Florida has also been observed in other states and countries.

Link to the study:

We know students are excited to be back in the classroom and many families are eager to begin this transition. Please understand that schools are working as quickly as possible to carefully plan, using the new state guidance to ensure school environments are safe for students and staff. 

  • It takes time to update school plans and procedures with updated guidance. 

  • We know students are excited to be back in the classroom and families are eager to begin this transition. Please know that our school team is working as quickly as possible to carefully plan, using the new guidance and ensure school environments are safe for students and staff. 
  • Ultimately, schools must follow state and local guidance, even if the CDC does make guidance changes.

  • It takes time to update school plans and procedures with updated guidance. 

  • School district leaders must meet with local union leaders to amend and adopt new labor agreements.

  • We ask for patience as we work through the complex details required of schools in order to bring more students into the classroom under the new three (3) foot classroom guidance.

While this change was expected, the timing of this announcement was unknown.  Of course, it coincided with a lot of other "happenin's."  So I apologize for the cut-and-paste message.  More updates to follow...
Have a great weekend, HSD. Stay healthy and stay positive -

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