Page updated: August 6, 2021 at 3:27 p.m. 

COVID-19 and Schools

Case rates are at some of their highest levels of the pandemic. Why is in-person instruction happening?

Students are returning to the classroom this fall at the direction of Governor Inslee, the Secretary of Health, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Following recommendations and guidelines from the CDC, they have determined that all students will have the opportunity to attend school in-person full time (five days per week) in the 2021–22 school year. School districts will not have the option to provide solely hybrid or remote learning.

School closures over the past two school years have disrupted learning, families, and employment. Students missed out on many of the benefits that come from being in the classroom with peers and teachers, including easy access to meals, technology, physical activity, counselors, and other supportive services. With kids schooled remotely, parents who worked from home have had to juggle work responsibilities and child-rearing, while others have had to find childcare to fill in the void that schools had once filled. 

As students return to classrooms, the Washington State Department of Health and Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction have identified two goals:

  • Minimize transmission of COVID-19 among students and staff in K-12 schools and to their families and the broader community. 
  • Maximize in-person instruction.

Is in-person learning safe?

Recent research and experience show that in-person learning can happen safely when multiple prevention steps are followed. Those steps include required vaccination of school staff and recommended vaccination of students over the age of 12, universal face coverings/masks, physical distancing, hand washing, cleaning/disinfection, ventilation, school-based testing, contact tracing, and isolation/quarantine.

Do students have the option to attend school remotely?

Washington State school districts are required to provide in-person learning, but they are not required to provide a remote option. We suggest you speak to your school district if you have questions about in-person vs. remote learning. 

What are the masking requirements?

Masks (or a face shield with a drape for those with developmental, behavioral, or medical conditions) are required indoors for all staff and students, in compliance with the Secretary of Health’s Mask Order. Staff who are verified to be fully vaccinated can work indoors without masks when students aren’t present.

According to the Secretary of Health’s Mask Order, masking is not required outdoors, regardless of vaccination status. Masks are, however, strongly recommended for unvaccinated individuals when outdoors in crowded spaces or when in close contact with others. 

Are masks required on school buses?

Yes. The CDC’s order requiring masks on public transportation, regardless of vaccination status, applies to school buses and transportation.

What is close contact in a school setting?

The definition of a “close contact” varies depending on whether the student is in a classroom or is somewhere else at school. If the contact is between two masked students within a classroom, close contact is defined as within 3 feet. Elsewhere in a school, or if an adult is the case or the contact, or if either of the students are not appropriately masked, close contact is defined as within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes over 24 hours. 

In a K-12 indoor classroom, the close contact definition excludes students who were at least three feet away from an infected student when (a) both students were wearing face coverings/masks and (b) other prevention strategies were in place.

What is the mask requirement for sports?

The most recent guidance related to masking and testing requirements for school sports can be found here.

Reopening Whatcom County

Businesses, recreation sites, and venues are open at full capacity (provided they meet workplace safety requirements), except large indoor events hosting 10,000 or more people which are open at 75% capacity. 

The mask mandate has been expanded to include fully vaccinated people. Effective August 23, everyone will be required to wear masks in indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status. As of September 13, masks are also required at outdoor venues hosting 500 or more attendees.

Vaccines are still our best defense against COVID-19, but no vaccine is 100% effective and masks provide an additional layer of defense against the highly transmissible Delta variant. See our masking page for more details. 

To find out more, visit

How can I get PPE? 

  • The state has been working on obtaining and distributing PPE throughout Washington. Information about PPE supplies and distribution, including a breakdown by county, is available on the Washington State coronavirus website.
  • Masks are being distributed to local businesses by area Chambers of Commerce. Please visit the Bellingham Regional Chamber website to check available supplies.

Insurance Coverage and Costs

How much does testing cost?

If you have insurance: 

  • Most health insurance plans will cover the cost of testing for COVID-19. Insurance plans regulated by the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner are required to waive co-pays and deductibles for anyone requiring testing for COVID-19. However, if you’re seeking testing for travel or another reason not related to COVID-19 illness, your insurance company may charge you. The CDC currently advises against travelling for any reason if you aren’t fully vaccinated.
  • Check with your insurance provider about coverage for testing and associated visits. 
  • If you believe you have wrongly been charged for a COVID-19 testing-associated visit, you can file a complaint with the Office of the Insurance Commissioner.  
  • Most health insurance plans will cover testing and treatment for medically-necessary services related to COVID-19. If you need medical treatment for COVID-19, copays and deductibles will still apply.

If you do not have insurance:

  • You do not have to pay for a COVID-19 test; however, if you're seeking testing for travel or another reason not related to COVID-19 illness, your insurance may charge you. The CDC currently advises against traveling for any reason if you aren't fully vaccinated. Search our list of testing locationsto find one where insurance is not required.
  • All uninsured Washington residents can see if they qualify for special enrollment in the Washington Health Benefits Exchange, or Apple Health. You can visit the Health Benefits Exchange website or call 1-855-923-4633; TTY: 1-855-627-9604 for more information. 
  • Unity Care NW and SeaMar community health centers have state-trained insurance navigators for the state Health Plan Finder website. Call their offices to ask for help.
    • Unity Care NW’s Outreach and Enrollment Office: 1-360-788-2669 
    • SeaMar: 1-855-289-4503; Monday - Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Disease Investigation and Reporting

What happens when a contact tracer calls me?

Contact tracers, or case/contact investigators (CCIs) call people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 and their close contacts. 

They talk with each person who has received a positive COVID-19 test to find out:

  • Where they were during their infectious period.
  • Who they may have had contact with for more than 15 minutes in a space of less than 6 feet.

Once we know this information, we reach out to each person who is a close contact to:

  • Let them know of their potential exposure to the disease.
  • Give them instructions about how to prevent infecting others.
  • Explain what they can do to take care of themselves.

CCIs will ask a few identifying questions: 

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Address 
  • Phone number

CCIs will never ask for your: 

  • Financial information.
  • Immigration status.
  • Social security number.
  • Fees or payment associated with contact tracing.

For more information on how to avoid scammers, visit Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Information: Help COVID-19 contact tracers, not scammers.

To find out more, see our COVID-19 Case Investigation fact sheet.

I know I had contact with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Why haven’t I been contacted?

Identifying close contacts and informing them to stay home and monitor for symptoms is an important public health response. If you haven't been contacted, there may be a couple of reasons why:   

  • You are only considered a close contact if you have been with a confirmed case within six feet for more than 15 minutes over the course of 24 hours.
  • The person with COVID-19 might not have told us about their contact with you. If you are concerned that you could be sick with COVID-19, you should quarantine yourself and make a plan to get tested.
  • You may get a text indicating you are a close contact and can report any symptoms through the Sara Alert system. Learn more about how Sara Alert works here: .

If you have questions, you can call us at 360-778-6100.

What details do you share about a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 in our community?

Data regarding confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our community can be found on our COVID-19 Data Dashboard. We protect private health information and only share limited details about COVID-19 cases.

Why aren’t you reporting the numbers of patients who have recovered?

We get this question a lot. The main reasons are:

  • People who have tested positive for COVID-19 are not required to report to the health department or to their healthcare provider when they have recovered. 
  • It’s likely that many people are recovering without even realizing that they’ve even been infected. Some people who become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 show few or no symptoms and therefore are not tested in the first place. Since we can’t know how many people have been infected, we can’t know how many have recovered, and any data we give on recovery rates would be inaccurate. 

About COVID-19 Variants of Concern

What are Variants of Concern?

Variants of concern are newly evolved strains, or variants, of COVID-19 that may be more highly transmissible, cause more severe illness, or resist vaccination. New variants make up the vast majority of new COVID-19 cases in Washington state. 

Five variants of concern have been identified in Washington State as of June 22, 2021. Those variants are:

  • Alpha, or B.1.1.7, first detected in the United Kingdom. This variant spreads more easily and may be more likely to cause severe illness or death than other variants. This variant is currently the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Washington State. All vaccines currently in use have proven highly effective at preventing infection and transmission of this variant. 
  • Beta, or B.1.351, first detected in South Africa. Some evidence suggests that the vaccines currently in use in the United States may be less effective against this variant. However, COVID-19 vaccines are still effective at preventing severe illness and death from this strain.
  • Gamma, or P.1, first identified in Brazil. This virus has 17 unique mutations, and there’s some evidence suggesting some of these mutations help the virus evade COVID-19 antibodies, both natural and vaccine-made. COVID-19 vaccines are still very effective at preventing severe illness and death.
  • Epsilon, or B.1.427 and B.1.429, first detected in California. Both of these strains may be more contagious than the original COVID-19 strain and some antibody treatments may be less effective with these variants, although more research is needed to confirm these observations.
  • Delta, or B.1.617.2, first detected in India. Initial evidence suggests the Delta variant is even more transmissible than variant Alpha. Fortunately, all COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the US have proven effective against this variant.

For more information about new COVID-19 variants, visit DOH's COVID-19 Variants page.

How can I protect myself from new COVID-19 variants?

The good news is that all the prevention strategies we know work against the original COVID-19 strain work against these variants too. Take the following precautions to protect yourself against variants of concern:

  • Get vaccinated for COVID-19. The vaccines are all very effective at preventing infection, severe illness and death, even with variants of concern. Widespread vaccination will also help prevent the development of new, potentially more serious variants of concern.
  • If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, then masks, physical distancing, and limited social gatherings (especially indoors) are your best defenses against variants of concern.