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A crossing guard, center, helps students cross the street at the end of the school day Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Selah, Wash.

Yakima County high school students can begin to return part-time to campus following strict safety protocol as early as Feb. 16, the Yakima Health District said in a letter to superintendents Tuesday afternoon.

The district said new cases of COVID-19 in the community are too high to warrant a full return of students to campus. But officials said solutions are necessary.

“Given the significant effect remote learning has had on families, parents, and educators, we must look at alternatives. One alternative is hybrid learning. Hybrid learning will allow schools to effectively group or ‘pod’ students to provide health screenings, manage mask requirements, handwashing protocols, and provide for and enforce social distancing requirements,” the health district said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

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.

The health district noted that even during a local peak in cases with 1,167 cases per 100,000 population over two weeks, “there was not a significant increase in on-site school transmission.”

The statement said 272 students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 while infectious at school in Yakima County. Of those, 13 were acquired on campus.

“Advancing to the hybrid learning model is not expected to pose a significantly greater risk to staff and students than their current activities given local data from August 2020 among K-8 students,” the health district said.

Officials urged community members to continue practicing strict safety protocols in schools and the larger community to allow schools to successfully open and remain open.

“Given the success that has been observed locally, and given the severe impact being observed, the benefit of returning students to school outweighs the risk at this point in time,” interim health officer of Yakima Health District Dr. Larry Jecha said in a news release Tuesday. “This is all dependent on schools following the state and local safety protocols and on family members following the public health recommendation.

“If we want schools to stay open, we will have to ensure to slow the spread of COVID-19, before it causes outbreaks at schools or other places currently operating at limited capacity,” he said.

The lead-up

As of Nov. 15, the local health district recommended in-person learning at the K-8 level and remote learning for high school students. Since then, there’s been more focus on getting students back into classrooms nationwide.

Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association calling for kids to return to classrooms. The Yakima Health District Board of Health supported efforts to bring back high school students at a meeting last week.

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.

On Monday, Board of Health representatives and health district staff heard presentations from superintendents representing the 15 districts in the county. These presentations included information on the 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.

Since August 2020, the health board has had ongoing conversations with superintendents and school nurses, it said in a Tuesday news release, and has assessed its case investigation and outbreak response capacity.

With all this in mind, the health district decided to approve the part-time return of high school students to campuses throughout Yakima County as early as Feb. 16, provided they follow a series of guidelines, it said.

Safety precautions

These changes mean that high school students throughout the county are likely to resume in-person learning at least a couple of days a week beginning in mid-February. The remaining days, they will continue remote learning.

Students and families uncomfortable returning to campus can continue to use remote learning.

Prior to and after opening, schools must:

• have a partnership to enable voluntary COVID-19 testing for all staff before the return;

• schedule pre-opening visits with the health district for all high schools before the return and be subject to ongoing visits;

• comply with all state and local guidance;

• close in the event of two or more cases determined to be linked within a two-week period;

• close if “found to be negligent in failure to enforce the guidelines as outline in state and local guidance.”

Masks are required for students and staff. The health district strongly recommends that schools gradually bring back students with three weeks between phases to allow time to identify outbreaks. They are also asked to consider staff and students at highest risk for serious illness from the virus and to ensure adequate hygiene, sanitization and personal protective equipment are available.

The letter noted that student immunizations and paperwork must be up to date, as is required at the state of any school year. It also cautioned against gatherings outside of school.

“As we have seen in many of our workplaces, it is not only the environment within the school or place of work that facilitates the spread of COVID-19,” it said. “(P)eople gathering outside of their place of work or school, in environments with less structure, is where COVID-19 spreads.

“COVID-19 is still a major concern throughout the county and Yakima County continues to have one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the state,” the letter to superintendents said. “It is necessary to maintain vigilance with infection control and mitigation measures, otherwise, large amount of community spread will eventually find ways into our schools and workplaces.”