The Yakima School District plans to return about 3,000 more students to in-person learning in small groups based on need beginning next week.

That will bring the total number of students learning in person in the district to more than 3,600, said Robert Darling, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. That’s more than 23% of the district’s roughly 15,513-student population as of January.

Soon after, he said, he expects the district to have an announcement about a timeline for returning whole grade levels of students to hybrid learning, which is partially in-person, partially online.

Darling broke down where the district stands in reopening, and what the coming steps mean for Yakima School District students, families and staff.

Some questions and answers:

What students have already been returned to in-person learning in the Yakima School District?

Before winter break, Yakima schools reintroduced students in its teen parent program and those with disabilities to in-person learning. That was 350 to 400 students, said Darling.

Since the new year, about 15 early learners have been brought to campus through a Transitional Kindergarten program that aims to give students foundational skills to prepare them for a successful start to K-12.

What’s next?

The next group of students to come back in person will be the largest yet in the district. Darling said about 3,000 students in grades K-12 will be brought back to campus for tutoring. He said this would mean 2 to 3 hours of in-person support two to four days a week, depending on need. Students can receive tutoring, socio-emotional support, socialization from 6 feet away, credit retrieval, counseling and more, he said.

Students experiencing homelessness are considered first priority, followed by students in foster care; low-proficiency English language learners; students with disabilities or those on 504 plans; and finally, students who are generally unengaged or showing no academic achievement in remote learning, Darling said.

Working down this priority list, those who show a need for support will be offered the opportunity to learn in-person. Families will maintain the option to learn remotely if they are uncomfortable returning students to campus at that time, he noted.

Schools will have no more than 5% of building enrollment on campus at a time, for a total of 20% for the week, said district communications director Kirsten Fitterer.

The district will rely on teachers, substitutes, paraprofessionals and faith-based partners to meet the needs of this group of students in tutoring, Darling said. While some schools may have this new layer of services up and running as soon as next week, the full return of the 3,000 students may take time.

Separately, the Yakima school board on Monday approved a 12-month contract for 24/7 tutoring services through next February to students in grades 5-12. The $297,500 contract will be reimbursed with federal CARES Act funds.

Darling said in an interview that these services may be used by students on campus as well as those learning remotely. Similar support may be rolled out for younger students down the road.

While a timeline for returning full grades of students to classrooms is yet to be determined, Darling said these plans are in the works.

What challenges does the district face?

Students across multiple school buildings sometimes share the same bus, complicating cohorting and contact tracing, especially as more students return to campus, Darling said.

He also said the district uses a large amount of the county’s small supply of substitute teachers when in-person, meaning that a return to campus could negatively impact other districts relying on substitutes amid the pandemic.

Like any other district, Darling added, the Yakima School District is working to support students while also taking student and staff safety seriously.

“A beloved staff member passed away last week due to COVID,” Darling said, referring to Wilson Middle School teacher Greg Hausske, who died on Jan. 22. “As a district, we’ve been very cognizant about the impact on our staff and keeping staff and families safe. But we also know students learn best while in person. So it’s such a tricky, sad balance to have to do. Because when we start bringing students back, we know that’s going to impact a lot of staff members.”

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