Local school districts and the Yakima Health District are now engaged in serious discussions on how and when students can return to public school buildings for in-person learning.Officials with the Yakima School District have said they intend to maintain their original plan to provide remote learning through the end of the semester. West Valley officials, meanwhile, had been looking at mid-October but are suspending their timeline to seek more input from staff members and the community.
Why mid-October, and why younger kids? Why not now? Why not all students?
There are plenty of arguments to be made and sides to take regarding COVID-19, but nobody seriously suggests that students are better off as remote learners. Far from it; the Centers for Disease Control nicely sums up arguments for traditional, in-school learning: “Aside from a child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school. The in-person school environment does the following: provides educational instruction; supports the development of social and emotional skills; creates a safe environment for learning; addresses nutritional needs; and facilitates physical activity.”
More than 1 million Washington schoolkids have been without that environment since Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools closed March 13, in the early days of the pandemic. Remote learning began shortly after, with decidedly mixed results. Of course, we all want kids back in school — perhaps especially parents normally employed outside the home but who found themselves forced into becoming home-schooling facilitators several months ago.
But the health district and local school officials are wise to take their time and are doing so for the best of reasons. For one thing, district and health officials want to make sure there’s no spike in COVID-19 numbers following the Labor Day weekend, nor from recent relaxations to the Stay Home, Stay Safe program in Yakima County, where residents can now enjoy limited indoor restaurant seating, visits to the gym and other activities, albeit with restrictions.
As far as starting with younger students, there’s much we don’t know about the COVID-19 virus, and the base of knowledge is constantly being updated. But so far the numbers suggest that children with the virus are less likely to have severe symptoms when compared with adults, and they show a much lower rate of hospitalizations and deaths. In addition, the CDC reports that available evidence from countries with reopened schools show a relatively low risk of infection for school-age children, at least in places with lower community transmission. Yakima County’s infection numbers have fallen significantly in recent weeks.
There are risks, of course; 1 in 3 kids hospitalized with COVID-19 end up in intensive care. And one of the biggest concerns of all: Not all people in school buildings are kids. Teachers, administrators and other staff members will be at risk of infection. Yes, kids can carry and transmit the virus.
There are signs of hope from the Valley community. Several local private schools are open for traditional, in-class learning — while adhering to strict safety measures — and have not reported any cases of COVID-19, according to YHD Chief Operating Officer Ryan Ibach.
Meanwhile, West Valley, Selah and other districts recently began serving a handful of highest-need students in their school buildings, and Yakima intends to follow suit soon. This bears close scrutiny and could prove to be a positive first step.
When more students return to public schools, Ibach said, it would be similar to how local private schools function: face masks, social distancing and reduced class sizes. In addition, schools will need to set up planned responses for individual cases, classroom closures or building closures.
And while it’s easy to imagine teachers wrestling with younger kids over keeping their faces covered, it’s also easy to imagine masks supplanting old-fashioned lunch boxes as status symbols. “Oh, cool, Benito has a Spider-Man mask! Mom, can I get one?”
So where does this all leave local public schools — administrators, teachers, parents and students? Hopefully, taking it S-L-O-W.
“I believe that we continue to err on the side of caution,” said Trevor Greene, Yakima School District superintendent.
He is absolutely correct. Schools must keep talking to YHD, listen to concerned teachers and parents, make all necessary plans, take their time and communicate thoroughly with all concerned. For the sake of the health of our communities, let caution rule the day.
Editor's note: The Yakima School District's plans were incorrect in an earlier version of this editorial and have been corrected.