CLARKSTON, Asotin County — It was the first week of school at Clarkston High, and Principal Doug LaMunyan and his staff were working their way around campus, digital thermometers in hand, hunting down masks for the few students who had forgotten them, reminding everyone to stay at least 6 feet apart.
“Hey guys, only two to a table,” LaMunyan said, breaking up a group of friends huddled together in the breakfast area. They complied, with a few grumbles.
For the five months since last spring, like all students in Washington, kids in Clarkston conducted their learning remotely. They’ve spent the summer in this hot, dry eastern corner of the state largely mask-free. Now that the school year has started, they are learning to do something that no state resident in modern times has yet experienced: Go back to school in-person during a global pandemic.
Most Puget Sound-area school districts will resume school online this week. But about 60 of the state’s 300 districts — mostly in rural areas — are going back face-to-face for at least part of the week, according to the state school superintendent’s office. In these districts — which represent about 5% of the state’s 1.1 million students — the numbers of cases are low, and families are clamoring for school doors to reopen.
Eventually, all children will be back. When they return, their schools may be run like those in Clarkston, where only half the kids are in the building at once, the water fountains are turned off, hand sanitizer is everywhere — and the threat of a return to mostly virtual learning hangs over the school year.
Clarkston, which started school Aug. 26, drew inspiration from the Northshore School District, among the state’s first to take schooling online when the pandemic broke out, although that district isn’t planning to go back in-person yet. Northshore’s plan — which has been widely requested by and shared with other districts, said Superintendent Michelle Reid — attempts to strike a balance between safety and education.
If the number of coronaviruses cases stays low, Clarkston’s students can remain in class about half the time. If case numbers drop lower, schools could return to a traditional model. But if cases rise, the district will turn the dial back, said Clarkston Superintendent Thaynan Knowlton. More learning will be online, less in-person, with priority given to the youngest kids and those receiving special-education services. It’s a model that uses advice from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, who has recommended that schools reopen where infection rates are low.
Clarkston, in Asotin County, is a smaller twin city to Lewiston, Idaho, the two municipalities separated by the Snake River, which forms a dramatic river valley at the edge of the Palouse. This is a solidly conservative corner of Washington, where political signs cheer on GOP candidates. President Donald Trump won 59% of the Asotin County vote in 2016.
Even so, there’s a frisson of tension with neighboring Idaho, where schools opened to in-person instruction Monday, with mask-wearing optional. Washington has delayed high school football until the spring, but Idaho is preparing for the fall season. Some Clarkston educators are on edge, fearing a fall outbreak in a region largely spared from COVID-19 because of its remoteness.
Low-risk is a relative notion in rural Washington. If Asotin County, population 22,000, has between four and 15 cases in a two-week period, Clarkston will do in-person school four days a week. If it has 16 to 20 cases, it will need to consider putting more of the school day online. Anything beyond 25 cases in a two-week window means sending kids home. To avoid whiplash, the district will reassess every four to six weeks.
At the start of the first week of school, the Asotin case count stood at 22, but by Friday, the number had dropped to 11 over a 14-day period — a trend in the right direction, as some cases dropped off the two-week window.
With so much uncertainty, “our first priority is just to get to know” students, said LaMunyan, the principal. “Our second is to prepare them to go online.” Meanwhile, parents of about 350 students in the 2,500-student district are planning to stay entirely virtual, an option called Clarkston Online.
“They can’t see my face”
English teacher Dawn Brown, a 25-year veteran of the classroom, was blunt on the first full day of freshman English: You’re going to have to be more organized than ever before, she told students.
Speaking through a black mask, she gave her 16 students their first assignment, to write a letter describing themselves, their hobbies, their interests. But she spent nearly half the class troubleshooting.
The district is using Google Classroom, a free learning-management program. As students logged in, there were glitches. Brown went from one desk to the next, offering tips. Most tried to log on with their phones, but some found it easier to use a Chromebook — a minimalistic, browser-based laptop.
When class ended, Washington State University student teacher Kayla Brown went around the room with sanitizer, spraying down desks for the next group.
“Those relationships — they’re important every year, but even more so this year,” Dawn Brown said. She’ll have to build rapport with her students two days a week, while wearing a mask. “They can’t see my face. They can’t read it. They can’t tell if I’m joking. I’m trying to make my eyes crinkle more.”
Brown is already planning for freshman English to be different. She’ll still teach Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Homer’s “The Odyssey,” but she won’t be able to group students in class and have them work collaboratively, which will make these demanding texts harder to teach. She says she expects to spend up to 30% more time teaching and organizing her class than if everyone were back in school. And yet, she’s happy to be back.
Clarkston is short several hundred Chromebooks, back-ordered and expected to arrive in October, Knowlton said. But for some students, the bigger problem is internet access. If school goes back largely online, “I would be doomed, honestly,” said Ethan Gano, a Clarkston senior who has only spotty internet access from home. To bridge that divide, the district has set up hot spots that beam a stronger Wi-Fi signal into the parking lots.
He and several other Clarkston seniors say they’re not worried about catching the virus. Senior Mick Brown estimates 95% of the people he knows thinks officials are overreacting.
“The parents are making it work”
At Clarkston’s four elementary schools, classes run four days a week. Half the kids go in the morning, half in the afternoon, staying a total of 2 ½ hours. As with the upper grades, there is no school on Wednesdays. If case numbers grow, older students will shift to more virtual learning, and students in kindergarten through second grade will still go to school. Many experts believe the emphasis on returning to school should be on the youngest children, who seem to be least susceptible to the virus.
Last week, Heights Elementary Principal Samantha Ogden ran back and forth in front of the school, trying to keep parents from using the bus lane to drop their children off, urging kids to keep their masks on in the 90-degree heat.
“They are so happy to be here,” she said of her students. “The parents are making it work.”
Because students in grades three and above would need to go virtual if there’s an uptick in cases, her priority is to get those older students up and running on computers immediately.
“This is all about building foundations,” Ogden said. “No frills, no spice, just building the basics.”
Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.