Local school officials and the Yakima Health District are weighing whether to return high school students to campus, and how to do so safely.
During a Board of Health meeting Wednesday, health district staff “were directed to work with school administrators on developing solutions for a safe return of students for in-person learning for schools that remain in remote instruction,” the health district said in a news release Thursday.
Right now, the existing Yakima Health District guidance from Nov. 15 stands, which approves in-person learning at the K-8 level and remote learning for high school students.
As of Tuesday, there have been 266 COVID-19 cases in Yakima County schools, with the vast majority from community transmission. Just 10 cases were determined to have been contracted while in school buildings — all of which were cases among staff.
Ryan Ibach, chief operating officer for the health district, shared insights about what recent and upcoming conversations look like, and what they could mean for both students and school staff.
What do recent conversations between local health officials and schools regarding reopening look like?
On Wednesday during a county health board meeting, there was much emphasis on returning older students to campus alongside those already learning in-person. Within the conversation, there was mention of guidance issued by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers on Tuesday in the journal JAMA calling for kids to return to classrooms.
The CDC researchers said the “preponderance of available evidence” indicates in-person learning can take place if schools, staff and students follow precautions — masks, social distancing, good air ventilation, cohorts, hybrid learning and testing, the article said.
The researchers also said local officials must be willing to impose limits on other settings, like indoor dining, to keep community infection rates low.
In mid-December, the state released new, more relaxed metrics for offering in-person learning. They included a suggestion that high school students be added back to campus if communities have fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 population over a two-week period and schools had demonstrated “the ability to limit transmission in the school environment.” Between Jan. 5-18, Yakima County reported 924 cases per 100,000 population.
With the county’s rates of new COVID-19 cases well above what the state metrics recommend, Ibach said one part of current conversations is “what’s the justification for going back prior to meeting that recommendation?”
Also on the table: Would a return of high school students be in stages? Would students be on campus part-time or full? When would this take place? Are there additional safety measures to be added beyond what is being done among younger grades?
Ibach noted that these discussions with superintendents are part of ongoing weekly coordination between the health district and schools, not a new undertaking.
“We know the effect of kids being in remote learning and we’re definitely looking at moving forward to getting kids back in school in stages, and making sure that it remains low risk for staff and students,” he said.
What will next week’s discussion entail?
A group of superintendents representing the 15 in Yakima County will be presenting to the health district and a portion of the health board, Ibach said. The presentation will include effects of remote learning on students, what safety measures are already in place in schools and measures that would be added if high school students returned to campus. He said any decisions made will be collectively agreed upon by the health district, board and superintendents.
“The superintendents, their No. 1 concern is the safety of students and staff,” Ibach said. “So we’re making sure we’re not rushing into it and that it can be done safely.”
Ibach said he hoped there would be an announcement early next week based on the discussions.
Are vaccines for school employees fitting into these conversations?
A safe return to in-person learning involves a local plan to administer vaccines for teachers when those vaccines are available and teachers are eligible, Ibach said. He said that doesn’t mean that vaccines will be administered before a return — just that there is preparation to do so when it’s possible.
Can a return of high school students to campus be done safely?
“Definitely. Or, if it wasn’t possible, we wouldn’t even be having these discussions,” said Ibach. “We know there are success stories not only in our county, but other counties.”
Ibach pointed to the minimal outbreaks in schools where elementary students in the county have been learning in person, as well as in high school settings like La Salle High School, a private school in Union Gap that reopened for in-person learning in late August. There, a handful of cases have been identified but none are said to be from on-campus transmission.
Ibach also said a dedicated outbreak response team in the county was to be credited for identifying and isolating cases of COVID-19 in school settings that are in-person, minimizing the impact and broader risk.