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FILE–English teacher Alyson Spidle, left, uses an infrared thermometer on Isabella Bonilla Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, before walking on campus for an after-school support program at Sunnyside High School in Sunnyside, Wash.

Several Yakima County school districts returned high school students to part-time in-person learning this past week, as the state pushed to bring more students back to campus.

East Valley, Highland, Selah, Wapato, West Valley and Zillah all restarted part-time in-person learning, widely referred to as hybrid learning, for high school students. On Monday, Granger’s high school students will join in the part-time return, according to Ryan Ibach, the Yakima Health District’s chief operating officer, who has worked closely with districts in developing safe reopening plans.

Ibach also said that Grandview, Sunnyside and White Swan high schools had tentative plans to begin hybrid learning in early- to mid-March, while Mabton is aiming to wait for the county to reach a case-rate of 450 or fewer cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 population over a two-week period.

Yakima County had 508.7 cases per 100,000 population between Jan. 25 and Feb. 7.

The moves come after a Feb. 2 announcement from the Yakima Health District OK’ing the part-time return of high school students to campus. The health district had previously cleared lower grades for part-time return. While it noted the spread of COVID-19 was still high, learning loss and mental health concerns among students also were considerable.

Pointing to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local transmission data in schools, the health district said that there was not significant concern over school-based transmission if precautions are taken.

To reopen, high schools are required to implement strict safety guidelines, slightly different than those for younger grades to account for rotating class schedules.

Naches Valley already resumed hybrid learning for its high school students prior to the recent Yakima Health District announcement. Other districts have returned small groups of students in high school to in-person learning. In Sunnyside, for example, students showing need came back to campus in small groups in the afternoon for in-person help in the fall, while Grandview brought back about 150 high schoolers for in-person learning in small groups.

Yakima School District has similarly slowly introduced small groups of high-needs students to campus, with about 3,600 students learning in-person as of this month. Full grades of students will begin to return to campus with the start of March, said Ibach, and additional grades will be phased in gradually.

“For YSD, we support their plan of going back in stages and continue to work with each school and will be conducting visits and offering recommendations both before and after students return to in-person learning,” he said.

Plans in Toppenish for the return of all high school students to hybrid learning were still being ironed out, Ibach said. Union Gap is a K-8 district only.

State-level push for in-person

As local districts began making significant strides in returning students to campus, the state also made new pushes to bring back students in person.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the state is expanding COVID-19 testing resources for school districts statewide in an effort to return more K-12 students to campus. Statewide, 13 districts have been piloting the on-site rapid testing of staff and students for COVID-19. Inslee said Tuesday that 48 additional schools would be joining the effort, and he hopes to see more. Highland and Union Gap school districts are among those added to the effort, according to the governor’s office.

Yakima School District has also been piloting rapid COVID-19 testing for teachers, although it wasn’t immediately clear if it was part of the state pilot program.

In response to the state effort, the Washington Education Association released a statement requesting funding for on-site testing for all schools operating with in-person learning statewide.

“Testing is one of the fundamental pieces recommended by the CDC for safe operations of schools, alongside adequate masking, six feet of distancing and proper ventilation and hygiene. Yet, these are the same issues that many school districts are struggling to provide,” it said. “As Gov. Inslee noted, it is educators who are the ones fighting to make sure these safety precautions are in place.”

The association also said educators should have access to the vaccine if working in-person, noting that this is the case in 28 other states.

“These basic precautions will ensure the safe operations of our schools for students, staff, families and our communities, which is ultimately what all want,” the statement said.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal informed school districts they have until March 1 to update and submit reopening plans to secure federal COVID-19 relief funds. Additional plans for “academic and student well-being recovery” regarding missed instruction will be due June 1.

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