The Yakima Health District outlined recommendations Monday that could bring elementary students back on campus as early as mid-October because of improving COVID-19 numbers.
The district said schools can consider returning students in grades K-5 to campus for in-person learning as early as Oct. 12 if new community case counts and hospitalizations hold. Hybrid learning for students in grades 6-8 could begin at least three weeks later, or as early as Nov. 2. Grades 9-12 could begin hybrid learning as early as Nov. 23. Hybrid learning involves a combination of virtual and in-person instruction.
The recommendations depend on stable case counts and hospitalization rates in the community, as well as schools following certain safety requirements. Those include procedures like cohorting students — meaning that students would be placed in groups without interaction across groups — conducting daily health screenings, enforcing masks and hand washing, following social distancing and properly disinfecting. Schools would be expected to consult with the health district in the event of a known or suspected case of the virus among students or staff.
A remote learning option must be provided for families that do not want their children to return to campus.
The county is still considered “high risk” according to guidance for schools released by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office in early August, meaning there are more than 75 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a two-week window per 100,000 population. Communities considered high-risk are recommended to maintain remote learning.
But the health district said Monday that parts of the community have remained below that threshold, while countywide, two-week case counts per 100,000 remained between 95 and 115 in the three weeks leading up to Sept. 24.
In a letter to school administrators on Friday in advance of the public announcement Monday, health officer Dr. Teresa Everson said this was significant progress since early August, when the health district recommended that schools maintain remote learning.
Lilian Bravo, spokeswoman for the health district, said officials have been weighing how to safely return students to campus since the mandated statewide closure of schools in mid-March.
“There’s been an acknowledgment from the start that schools are an important learning environment and a source of nutrition and food for families that need it as well. So we never had plans for distance (learning) to be ongoing,” she said.
She also noted that social-emotional needs can be met in school, potentially helping to turn around increased rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts in recent months.
Bravo said that in the past months, holidays like Mother’s Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July led to spikes in new cases of COVID-19. The health district was waiting to see if the same was true of Labor Day in early September before determining if community transmission was low enough to return students to campus, she said. While the holiday did lead to a slight increase in new positive cases, Bravo said it was not substantial enough for the district to postpone its new guidance.
The letter from Everson said the health district has the tools to conduct effective contact tracing to prevent widespread outbreaks. School closures or a return to remote learning would only be necessary in the event of an outbreak within the school itself, or if higher community transmission rates require a return to more strict social distancing measures. The health district plans to monitor cases among school-aged children and school staff to guide any future recommendations, it said.
Everson also noted the long-term educational and health benefits of in-person learning.
“It is clear that students benefit from education, and that for most families, distance learning is not superior or equal to in-person classroom instruction. Schools also provide many other benefits, which are magnified for populations experiencing health disparities,” she said in the letter. “Education is a key driver for health. Groups at higher risk for health disparities overlap groups at higher risk for lack of educational attainment. Barriers to educational attainment, including lack of access to early educational support, will result in lower academic achievement as well as lower lifetime health potential.”
Local schools’ plans
In light of the new guidance, area schools are beginning discussions over whether to return to campus, when and how.
• The Yakima School District, the largest in the county with roughly 16,000 students, will continue remote learning through the end of the semester, as planned, it said in a statement on its website. Small groups of students considered to be the most negatively impacted by campus closures will be gradually invited back to campus for in-person learning.
“In our first month of remote learning, with only some staff in the buildings and additional sanitation measures, the Yakima School District has experienced a number of positive COVID-19 cases,” it said in the statement. “This has required intermittent building closures as well as additional staff being quarantined. We remain concerned that increasing the number of persons on our campuses in the near future will negatively impact the health and safety of our staff, students and community.”
• In Sunnyside, the school board approved a plan for hybrid learning over the summer, in the event that students were allowed on campus. District communications director Jessica Morgan said the school board planned to discuss this plan in light of the health district announcement at a Monday evening meeting. The district plans to have more information for parents and community members Tuesday.
West Valley School District is gathering community and staff feedback on a potential return to campus following health guidelines. Two Zoom meetings will be held to offer an opportunity for questions and discussion. Details are available on the district’s website. The meetings are 2-4 p.m. Tuesday for staff, and 7-9 p.m. Thursday for community members.
• Toppenish School District Superintendent John Cerna said administrators were meeting with union representatives Monday evening to discuss when to return to campus. He said high-needs students, including special education students, English language learners and others who struggled with remote learning, are being prioritized to return to in-person learning in small groups. But he said a broader return of students would require “a lot of planning” that was unlikely to come together ahead of the district’s previously planned return date for K-5 students of Nov. 2.
• The Selah School District already has a plan, which will roll out slightly slower than the health district’s recommendations.
On Oct. 19, students in grades K-5 will return to campus on a hybrid, cohort model. Some students will attend school on campus in the morning and do remote learning in the afternoon, while others will attend in the afternoon. Superintendent Shane Backlund said the district is working with parents to determine the best groupings.
“The guidance does allow for K-5 students to be back fully if you have the space. We opted to take a gradual approach to ensure that systems and protocols are in place,” he said. “We’ll potentially add time to their day once we have that in place. Bringing them all back (felt) a little rushed.”
On Nov. 9, middle school students will return to campus, followed by high school students on Dec. 7, which is the start of the second trimester, Backlund said.
“Now we’re just working out all the details,” he said.
Reach Janelle Retka at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @janelleretka
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