I recently conducted a survey of constituents in Central Washington, asking a question that is on the minds of parents across our district and the entire country: "Do you support doing everything we can to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction in the fall?"

The overwhelming response was “yes.”

As we all know, on March 13, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered Washington state schools to close in response to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As other states followed suit, the governor extended the order several times and, unfortunately, students did not return to their classrooms and instead finished the 2019-20 academic year through remote instruction.

Closing schools, even in the case of a public health emergency, has the potential to wreak havoc on the stability of students, teachers and families. Schools meet fundamental needs of our kids from instruction in different subjects like history and math to emotional and social skill development. Prolonged suspension of these benefits can lead to a loss of learning that is detrimental to both our children and to our communities.

Rural areas, including many in Central Washington, are disproportionately impacted by decisions to conduct online-only education. Not only do many of our communities lack adequate access to digital infrastructure, but limited access to child care options and longer distances to work put extra, unfair hardships on parents as they begin to return to work.

We must also account for the potentially devastating mental health toll of social isolation. I have received notes from teachers and school counselors concerned for the safety — and in some cases, the lives — of their students due to their extended absence. Some of the most profound benefits of attending school come from interactions with friends and peers, and school faculty and staff can occasionally provide a confidential lifeline to a struggling child or teenager. Remote education simply cannot replace such valuable connections, and we must be wary of damaging social growth.

Depriving our children and families of these resources and opportunities is harmful to their well-being, and it is not sustainable.

While the need for children to return to school is paramount, we must ensure our local school faculty, staff and students are able to resume in-person learning in a safe and healthy environment by balancing high-quality education with risk-mitigation efforts to protect them from COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children and adolescents under 18 years old account for less than 7% of COVID-19 cases and less than 0.1% of COVID-19-related deaths. Furthermore, the CDC and the American Association of Pediatrics agree that the best available evidence indicates that the risk of students transmitting the disease to teachers or to each other is low when appropriate safety steps such as social distancing and mask wearing are implemented.

New York City, which has remained a hotbed of the virus since the start of the pandemic, will open its schools to in-person instruction with enhanced safety precautions in the coming weeks. I believe that our communities should observe this decision and its impacts closely, with an eye toward opening our own schools as soon as we can do so safely.

Ultimately, decisions about how and when to reopen school should be left to local officials. These teachers, administrators and community leaders know how to best meet the educational and health needs of their students better than any state or federal official ever could. While many of the school districts in Central Washington have already decided to begin instruction remotely this fall, I believe that educators should be consistently reevaluating circumstances in their communities so that we can get back to the business of educating America’s children through in-person classroom instruction as soon as possible.