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Governor: K-12 schools can reduce COVID social distancing
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OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday reduced the COVID-19 social distancing requirements for K-12 classrooms in the state from 6 feet to 3 feet as more schools in the state begin to open up.

At a news conference, Inslee said the new guidance was consistent with direction from federal health authorities and that, for now, schools had the option to maintain the 6-foot rule.

Teachers and staff should maintain 6 feet of distance from students and each other, with the 3 feet applying to distance between students, said state Deputy Secretary of Health Lacy Fehrenbach. Students should also maintain 6 feet of distance when eating, doing activities such as PE and music, or when in hallways and gymnasiums, she said.

Inslee said middle and high school students who aren’t in isolated “cohort” groups should still be placed at 6 feet apart in places where the number of people infected is still above 200 per 100,000 population.

However the Democrat said by this summer and fall no classrooms should still be at the more stringent standard.

Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, which supports schools districts in Yakima County and Central Washington, lauded the governor’s decision and said he expected 80% of Yakima County schools to transition to the 3-feet distancing.

“I think it’s a good thing that we’re going to be able to get more kids into school every day,” he said. “There’s been a team of people throughout this region and the state urging the governor and state to look at the science and make the change. I’m super glad that they listened.”

Chase said the next step would be for districts interested in making the move to discuss it and come to an agreement with their respective bargaining units. He said some districts have already done this, while others could take weeks or months to reach an agreement with unions.

There are also details to be worked out, since there are variances in required distance depending on activity and location, he said.

Regardless of whether the transition to 3 feet is postponed until closer to the end of the school year as details are ironed, Chase said it was important to begin the process now.

“We only have a couple full months of instruction left. But it’s a welcome sight and then it’s really going to open up summer school … and allow more kids to be served over the summer, to stem the (learning) loss and extend acceleration,” he said.

Back to the classroom

Inslee has for weeks been pushing to return students to the classroom, saying remote learning hasn’t worked for many children.

He had said all public schools in Washington will be required to offer students an in-person learning option by April — with school districts having to meet an average of at least 30% weekly in-class instruction by April 19. The proclamation allows for a staggered start, with all kindergarten to sixth grade students being provided an opportunity for hybrid remote and in-person learning by April 5, followed by all other K-12 students by April 19.

During a virtual news conference earlier Thursday, state Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah pointed to students statewide having safely returned to in-person learning.

“We’ve made the case previously that we believe that kids can go back to school in person and that it is safe for them to do so,” he said. “In fact as you know, there’s plenty of data throughout the state of Washington, of hundreds of thousands of kids — 300,000-plus to be exact — that have gone back in person safely.”

While public schools throughout Yakima County began the school year remotely, private schools locally have been teaching in person since the start of the school year. Many elementary public schools began returning students to in-person learning in the fall. Middle and high school students in districts throughout the county have resumed at least partial in-person learning in the past few months.

COVID-19 exposure in local schools has been minimal, according to the Yakima Health District. As of Tuesday, there have been 419 cases of the virus identified on campus since August, with just 12 believed to have been acquired on-campus. All 12 cases were among staff.

Yakima School District will wait on social distancing change, superintendent says
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The Yakima School District isn’t ready yet to reduce social distancing between students from 6 to 3 feet.

On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that districts could reduce the distance between students in classrooms to 3 feet effective immediately, following some specific guidelines. The move allows schools to bring back more students for in-person learning.

Regional school Superintendent Kevin Chase of Educational Service District 105 said he expects to see 80% of Yakima County school districts to make the change. But Yakima School District, the largest in the county by far with nearly 16,000 students, is not yet ready to do so.

Cases have been rising lately, and Superintendent Trevor Greene said Thursday the district wants to reassess after spring break.

“We have been very conservative and safety-conscious in our approach over the last year plus,” he said. “We are in our second week of our return to full hybrid. In those two weeks, we have seen a significant number of positive cases in our schools among students and with staff.”

In the past two weeks, the school district has conducted 231 COVID-19 case investigations that showed 20 positive tests among students and four positive tests among staff members, said Stacey Locke, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations and lead on their internal COVID-19 response team. None of the cases were found to have been transmitted on campus. But those numbers are up from about 20 investigations and one or two positive cases a week prior to students’ mass return to part-time in-person learning, she said.

With the district conducting its own COVID-19 monitoring to report to the Yakima Health District, Locke said the district didn’t have the capacity to safely oversee the entire student body’s return to campus.

“If we were to bring everybody back every day, you could possibly see the number of investigations doubling and even possibly the number of cases doubling within the pre-K-12 part of our school district,” said Locke. “As you look at that, that would put an extreme amount of stress on our health service department to keep all students and staff safe in the school environment.”

Locke said school nursing and health staff lead these investigations, which means potential exposure is identified same day. She attributed the lack of on-campus transmission to this rapid response, and said putting extra stress on the staff and system could disrupt its efficacy, putting students and staff at risk.

While the Yakima Health District has a team that oversees investigation in other schools throughout the county, Locke and Greene said the health district appreciated the district’s management of this process. The school district provides its internal data to the health district weekly.

Greene said that since students have returned to part-time in-person learning this month, engagement and work completion has improved dramatically. He said by not risking closure of campus from outbreaks caused by reduced distancing between students, the district could ensure this academic growth would continue among students.

Locke said the district expects an increase in community COVID-19 transmission over spring break in early April, making it best to postpone a transition to 3 feet of distance between students.

“We’ll reassess after spring break,” Greene said. “We’re not going to jeopardize our success in moving forward through the remainder of this year unless we can document and fully ensure that we can move forward in a very safe manner that will allow us to continue to track cases, and to be true to our values of safety first and looking after our community members that serve us so well.

“I’m not saying that we’ll finish the year in hybrid,” Greene added of part-time in-person learning. “But I’m fairly confident that if we did … we could do so with our heads held high, knowing that we served our students in a way we can be proud of … (with) differentiated support, safety, security, and all our other services.”

Biden's first news conference provides glimpse of post-COVID-19 challenges

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden opened the door to skirting the Senate’s filibuster rule for Democrats’ voting rights bills, acknowledged the U.S. military would not leave Afghanistan on schedule and defended his handling of migrants on the southern border during his first formal news conference since taking office.

In the hourlong session Thursday, he also began to outline his “next major initiative” — ambitious plans to invest in the country’s infrastructure and schools, to be detailed next week — and seemed unbothered by the possibility that Republicans in Congress wouldn’t offer their support.

“There’s so much we can do that’s good stuff, makes people healthier and creates good jobs,” he said.

Biden started the event by announcing that he was doubling his COVID-19 vaccination target, from 100 million to

200 million shots in the first 100 days of his presidency; the initial goal was reached in 58 days. He also said that nearly half the country’s schools serving kindergarten through eighth-grade students are open five days a week, significant progress toward his goal of returning more children to classrooms.

No reporters asked further about the pandemic, though nearly 1,000 Americans continue to die each day of COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout remains uneven in some states. The omission was an early sign that the national agenda was shifting after a year of being dominated by the fight against the coronavirus and its toll on public health and the economy.

Nor was Biden questioned much about gun control, though two recent mass shootings in Boulder, Colo., and the Atlanta area thrust the issue back into the spotlight. When the topic was raised once, he quickly segued to talking about infrastructure.

Biden said he was “putting one foot in front of the other” and making progress toward his lofty goal of bringing Americans together even though he’s failed to reach bipartisan deals on legislation.

“I’ve not been able to unite the Congress, but I’m uniting the country,” he said.

Partisan gridlock has led progressives to push for an end to the Senate filibuster, which allows the minority party — currently Republicans — to block legislation. While Biden has declined to endorse repeal, he said he’s willing to make some changes, particularly if it would help in “dealing with certain things that are just elemental to the functioning of our democracy, like the right to vote.” Some Democrats have already pushed for making voting rights legislation immune from filibusters.

Biden blasted Republican efforts in the states to restrict voting, most of which are based on false claims about election fraud stoked by former President Donald Trump, who continues to lie about his defeat.

“What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is,” Biden said. “It’s sick. It’s sick.”

Biden confirmed that he expects to run for reelection — he’ll be nearly 82 years old by Election Day in 2024 — and that he plans to keep Vice President Kamala Harris on his ticket, calling her a “great partner.”

Asked whether he thinks he’ll be running against Trump in four years, Biden joked, “I have no idea if there will be a Republican Party.”

The news conference highlighted the new dynamic between the White House press corps and the president since Biden was inaugurated.

Unlike Trump, Biden refrained from insulting reporters or calling them fake news, and exchanges challenging administration actions did not devolve into angry recriminations. But Biden did not call on a correspondent from Fox News, his most powerful media antagonist, and he did grow testy when asked whether he was accepting of the conditions that migrant children endure in U.S. border facilities.

“That’s a serious question, right?” he said. “Is it acceptable to me? Come on.”

The president has faced a policy and political test as increased numbers of migrants try to cross into the United States. The vast majority are single adults, but rising numbers of children and families, many seeking asylum, put a particular strain on a U.S. immigration system not geared toward them.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is charged with the care of young migrants without parents, has added more than 15,000 beds for them in recent weeks, in facilities from the San Diego Convention Center to military bases in Texas, officials said.

But the U.S. Border Patrol is detaining the unaccompanied minors faster than the facilities can take them in or connect them with their families. More than 5,000 unaccompanied youths were being held in overcrowded jails as of Thursday, many for far longer than the 72 hours permitted under court settlements, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security.

Administration officials have limited the news media’s access to holding facilities near the border. Biden promised that would change, but didn’t say when.

He rejected the suggestion that his more humanitarian approach to migrant issues was leading more people to cross the border, noting that there were spikes during Trump’s presidency as well, especially at this time of year, before summer heat makes desert crossings particularly dangerous.

“Does anybody suggest there was a 31% increase under Trump because he was a nice guy, and he was doing good things at the border?” Biden said. “That’s not why they’re coming.”

Biden said he makes “no apologies” for ending some of Trump’s policies, such as the separation of children and parents, even as he emphasized that the majority of migrants are still being quickly expelled under a Trump-era pandemic policy that he’s chosen to continue.

Although the debate in Washington has often centered on issues of border security and enforcement, Biden tried to reframe it as a discussion about moral imperatives and deeply rooted problems in Central America, where many migrants begin their journey. The trips, he said, are the result of desperation among people seeking economic opportunity or refuge from violence.

No one, Biden said, is saying, “I got a great idea. Let’s sell everything we have, give it to a coyote” — a smuggler — “have them take our kids across the border, into the desert, where they don’t speak the language. Wouldn’t that be fun? Let’s go.”

The president on Wednesday announced that he has asked Harris to lead efforts to work with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — to stem the flow of migrants.

On a separate topic, Biden said it was unlikely that the U.S. military would pull out of Afghanistan by May 1, a deadline set by the Trump administration. U.S. commanders fear the withdrawal would embolden the Taliban, jeopardizing the country’s future nearly two decades after the war began in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We will leave. The question is when we leave,” Biden said. He said that he “can’t picture” U.S. forces being in Afghanistan next year.

The president also spoke at length about his approach to China, one of the most far-reaching foreign policy issues on his agenda, with economic and security ramifications.

“We’re not looking for confrontation, although we know there will be steep, steep competition,” Biden said. China wants to become the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, he added, but “that’s not going to happen on my watch — because the United States will continue to grow and expand.”

Biden said Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, “doesn’t have a democratic — with a small d — bone in his body. But he’s a smart, smart guy. He’s one of the guys like Putin who thinks autocracy is the wave of the future, democracy can’t function in an ever-complex world.”

The challenge, Biden said, will be proving him wrong.

“I predict to you — your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy?” he said. “Because that is what is at stake.”

Federal stimulus could help fund Yakima's fire and police fleet upgrades
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The city of Yakima will get $25.5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act signed earlier this month by President Biden, and it comes with fewer restrictions than previous rounds of COVID-19 relief funding.

Half of the money will be available in May, with the other half arriving next year. Though cities throughout the country are waiting for specific guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department on how the money can be spent, the only things expressly forbidden by the bill are using it for pension funds or to offset tax decreases or delay tax increases. So, while the City Council will wait to hear from Treasury before rewriting its 2021 budget, it should be able to allocate some of the money for needed upgrades to the fire and police departments’ vehicle fleets.

“That seems to be a really good fit,” city Finance Director Steve Groom said.

The general principle behind the American Rescue Act’s city and county funding — a total of $350 billion nationwide, including the city of Yakima’s $25.5 million and $48.6 million for Yakima County — is to help local governments make up for COVID-created shortfalls between now and 2024. The city, for instance, took a million-dollar hit to its lodging tax revenue in 2020 and tourism continues to suffer. Yakima also took in less-than-predicted revenue from sales tax and real estate excise taxes as well as building permits and fire inspections in 2020, Groom said.

“The intent of the legislation seems focused on restoring cities’ financial stability and resiliency,” he said. “The city of Yakima will be taking care to consider the deficits caused by COVID-19 and how best to assure the city’s continuity of service and infrastructure well into the future.”

That stands in contrast to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which came with more restrictions and ended in November.

“With the CARES Act, every city in America said, ‘Hey, we can’t backfill lost revenue. What’s the deal?’” he said.

There’s no indication as to when the Treasury Department will give further guidance on how cities and counties might spend American Rescue Plan money, Groom said. But it’s apparent there will be fewer restrictions.

“It seems to be a broad umbrella,” he said.

Still, the city doesn’t want to run afoul of whatever guidance may be coming. That could mean having to repay money that’s already spent, Groom said.

“We’re just going to be cautious,” he said.