The Puyallup School District announced Friday high school students will be condensed into larger groups even as more COVID-19 cases are reported.

More than 16,000 Puyallup district students, or 72% of students, have returned to the classroom since March 2.

For the third week in a row, the Puyallup School District reported double-digits of staff and students quarantined.

In the most recent district data, 42 students and staff were directed to quarantine and nine tested positive for the coronavirus the week of March 8.

The highest weekly reported numbers were Feb. 26, when nine people tested positive and 115 staff and students were quarantined.

Superintendent John Polm said the school district has seen the highest reported staff and students quarantined in Pierce County because contact tracing has been conservative.

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“So we err on the side of you were exposed, rather than well, you might not have been exposed, we aren’t going to count you. So our quarantine numbers are high, because we’re very, very conservative,” he told The Puyallup Herald.

The Bethel School District, which follows a two-week timetable rather than one week, reported 10 COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks. The district is not reporting quarantined cases.

The largest district in Pierce County, Tacoma Public Schools, has reported 16 positive cases the week of March 15 and 35 quarantined.

Polm described the rise in cases and quarantines as a “blip.”

“If you look at our data, we had a little blip,” I think it was an anomaly in the data for as far as the number of people quarantined, and then it came back down, he said. “So we are continuing to be as diligent as you can.”

Polm is hopeful as more district teachers and workers are vaccinated the COVID-19 cases will taper off. The district scheduled an educator vaccine clinic at Rogers High School on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Polm said there was expected to be 1,500 doses.

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All grades have returned to the classroom as of March 2, but older students are seeing teachers fewer days than younger students.

Elementary school students returned to in-person instruction in mid-January. K-1 and special education students attend five days a week and second to sixth grades are at two days a week.

Secondary students were broken into four “cohorts” with two half-days of in-person learning every other week. Junior high students returned with four cohorts on Feb. 16. Students in 10-12 grade have been in-person for almost three weeks.

Junior high school — which consists of grades seventh, eighth, and ninth — began the two-cohort model on March 16.

On March 30, high school students will shift from four cohorts to two.

Students in the C group will merge with the A group for in-person instruction every Tuesday and Thursday. The D and B groups will attend every Wednesday and Friday. Mondays will be online for all students.

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State Department of Health guidance recommends high schools can increase in-person learning to groups of 15 or more when COVID-19 transmission is in the ‘moderate phase,” which is a rate between 50-349 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period. Pierce County’s 14-day case rate per 100,000 was 130.3 as of March 19.

“Increasing in-person instruction opportunities is possible due to our demonstrated ability to limit transmission in schools and the level of spread in the community,” the district said in an update.

The pandemic has changed the school district for the foreseeable future. Polm said the district is expecting a two- to three-year recovery from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Staff are looking at adding support for mental health services, continuing small class sizes and increasing ventilation.

“We’d love to be able to continue with that with some levels with real small class sizes,” Polm said.