Yakima Health District and school officials expressed additional support for the decision to allow high school students to return to campus part-time as of mid-February, saying Wednesday that lower levels reopened safely and distance learning had contributed to “dire” academic and mental health issues for some students.

They also acknowledged that reopening high schools posed additional challenges and discussed new COVID-19 safety precautions.

Yakima Health District officials were joined in a virtual news conference by Educational Service District 105 Superintendent Kevin Chase, Selah School District Superintendent Shane Backlund and East Valley School District Assistant Superintendent Russell Hill, who shared insights from their schools. The ESD provides support to regional school districts.

The news conference followed a Tuesday announcement from the health district that acknowledged COVID-19 case rates in the community remain far above what the state recommends to open high school campuses, but called for an alternative solution. The district gave the OK for high school students to return part-time to campuses as early as Feb. 16, following strict safety protocols.

The health district statement said the county’s most recent two-week case rate was 588 per 100,000 population — well above a state school target of under 200 cases per 100,000 population over two weeks.

During the Wednesday news conference, school and health district officials discussed how schools might tailor safety measures to their student populations.

Here are some takeaways on how the part-time returns to campus might be handled in schools throughout Yakima County. For more details on your school district’s approach, visit its website.

Were concerns over high school students’ mental health and grades a big driver of this decision to return them to campus?

“Nationwide, it’s becoming more and more of a talking point,” said Dr. Larry Jecha, the health district’s interim health officer. “I think it’s alarmed a lot of people. Like I mentioned, we’re not in the range that people recommend opening schools, but I think because of the dire things we’re seeing — the failure rates, the behavioral problems that we’re seeing — you sometimes have to outweigh one thing over the other. So I think we’re trying to do the best, and yes, I think it’s had a big factor in probably us moving forward with this.”

Schools throughout the county have previously reported high failure and incompletion rates, a wide gap between those excelling and failing, and increased socio-emotional needs among students. Long before the start of the school year, public health officials also anticipated a rise in the risk of suicide going into the winter.

Both Hill and Backlund said they heard of more and more social and emotional needs among both students and their families. Students’ self-reports of self-efficacy had declined while reports of suicidal thoughts had increased in Selah, for example.

“It makes it hard to give them the support they need when they’re not with us. And so that was definitely a big factor,” Hill said.

“It’s a combination of the data and anecdotal (evidence) that have really hit us as districts hard and provided us a talking point to work with the… health district to get schools open again,” Backlund said.

What additional measures are being taken to ensure these high schools are as safe — if not safer — than lower-level schools?

Ryan Ibach, chief operating officer for the health district, said district officials would be visiting high school campuses prior to opening to offer specific recommendations, then again after students return. The health district’s outbreak response team is also reviewing each school district’s plan for high school students’ return and providing feedback.

Many of the high school plans expand upon existing safety precautions and COVID-19 responses at the lower grade levels, officials on the call said.

Ibach added that the YHD is working with school districts to make voluntary COVID-19 testing available across the county. Some districts like Selah and Yakima already have these services available to staff.

He said the health districts’ outbreak response team will be key to ensuring that campuses remain safe.

But school administrators also plan differences at the high school level.

“High schools are unique,” Backlund said. “High school kids are mobile. They’re going to do things out of school. We recognize and realize that. Our staff and our admin team realize that too.”

At Selah High, he said, some additional measures at the high school level include motoring parking lots and having multiple entrances to campus to ensure students don’t congregate. Students will also be attending half-days, so bagged lunches will be available instead of on-campus meals, limiting gatherings over meals or time with masks off.

Backlund said that upon entering campus, students would go directly to their classrooms. He also said the district plans to both limit and stagger transitions.

“We realize that high school kids are more social, so we definitely have more measures in place as opposed to our k-8 schools,” Backlund said.

Hill of East Valley echoed Backlund: Students would be ushered straight to their first period instead of being given time to congregate. Markings will be placed in the hallways to direct the flow of traffic. More staff will be monitoring hallways to prevent students from gathering.

High school students usually rotate through five or more classes and classrooms in a day. How do you make sure you’re meeting their academic needs and adhering to some of those cohorting rules (ensuring students are kept in small groups that interact minimally, if at all) that have been successful at lower grades in the county?

Adjusting for this will look different in each district, officials said.

In East Valley, for example, high school students usually transition through six classrooms in one day. Upon returning to campus, they’ll not only be broken into two cohorts on campus at a time, but will also have their transitions reduced to three a day, he said.

Similarly in Selah, while a five-period day is normal, students “won’t be making five transitions,” Backlund said.

“We’re trying to limit our transitions to none or one a day,” he said.

He said schedules are still being sorted out and the district wants to ensure that students can attend all of their classes in the time available in-person each week.

“But yeah, we recognize that transitions (are) much easier to cohorts at K-5. It gets more challenging at 6-12,” he said.

Still, these are things schools have been brainstorming how to tackle for months, he said.

School districts have plans in place for students to continue with remote learning if their families are not comfortable with a return to campus. What does this look like for teachers, especially those who have potential comorbidities and aren’t vaccinated yet or who don’t feel safe returning to campus?

This is something that will look different in every district. Ibach pointed toward the voluntary COVID-19 testing intended for districts throughout the county as one measure.

Ibach also noted that among the 272 active cases of COVID-19 identified on campuses since the start of the school year, just 13 were determined to have been transmitted on-site, and all of these were among staff. With this in mind, he said it was important for teachers and staff to abide by precautions like mask-wearing, social distancing and limiting gatherings, whether that be on-campus or off.

Backlund said staff was a key considerations in his district. High-risk staff are being identified, and then the district is trying to see if a remote assignment is available for them, he said.

“What we’re finding right now is we’re still determining the numbers of kids that want to come back, and that will help determine what our staffing levels will be both for remote and in person,” said Backlund. “But our goal is to try to make sure that we — obviously, people that are at risk, we want to take care of them, for sure. So that’s something that’s ongoing as part of the discussions we’ve had with our union. So yeah, it’s something we definitely are looking into and taking seriously.”

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka