Question No. 1: Remote learning for K-12 students …
(A) Highlights economic inequities from student to student.
(B) Hinders a child’s social growth.
(C) Can be frustrating for technology-challenged students and parents.
(D) Increases a child’s screen time, which can disrupt sleep habits and other behaviors.
(E) Basically stinks.
(F) All of the above.
OK, next question: What do we do about all this? In this age of the great pandemic of 2020 — and, as of today, 2021 — how do we get kids back into brick-and-mortar schools without putting students, teachers, support staff and administrators at greater risk of infection?
In short, how do we safely mitigate the negative impacts of remote learning?
The uncomfortable answer is that there’s always some risk. But as many comprehensive studies cautiously suggest that schools aren’t the hotbeds of COVID-19 infection that many feared they would be, school districts here and across the state are opening up to more in-classroom learning — an idea that Gov. Jay Inslee is lauding. Inslee recently announced new infection-rate metrics for school districts to follow when making reopening decisions. The new metrics are considerably less restrictive than previous guidance. And while the new guidelines are not legally binding, school officials are taking notice.
The decision to reopen schools is for local officials to make. Using his emergency powers, Inslee ordered all schools closed in March, but he does not have the authority to order them to reopen. He has noted, though, that data indicate schools in which proper safety protocols are followed do not significantly contribute to coronavirus transmission in their respective communities.
As it turns out, Yakima County — which for many weeks experienced some of the highest infection rates on the West Coast — is one of the statewide leaders in the push for classroom learning.
Like pretty much every district in Washington, Yakima County public school districts kept school doors closed to begin the 2020-21 school year. But infection rates began to drastically drop here, and in late September the Yakima Health District told local public school officials that they could begin classroom learning on a gradual basis, starting with younger students. (Many of the county’s private schools had begun the year with classroom learning — using strict health protocols — and had no reports of significant infection outbreaks.)
Dr. Teresa Everson, the county’s public health officer at the time, said in a letter that students needed to return to campus for their long-term well-being. “Education is a key driver for health,” the letter stated. And by the middle of October, most county districts were returning younger students to classroom learning, with myriad precautions — temperature checks, frequent hand-washing and sanitizing, socially distanced desks and hallways, mask-wearing.
The plan to get middle school and high school students back into school buildings has been on hold, however, because infection rates have spiked since Thanksgiving week. Despite the higher rates, though, health officials continue to work closely with schools and say classroom learning here appears to be working well. Through late December, there have been 193 confirmed COVID-19 cases in county schools, the health district reports. The vast majority have been from community transmission. Just 10 were determined to have been contracted while in a school building, and all 10 involved staff members.
And now, school officials from other parts of the state are talking about coming here and asking for tips on how to safely get kids back into classrooms.
“I didn’t really realize that on the west side, a lot of those districts hadn’t opened up at all,” not even for younger students, said Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, the agency that supports 25 public school districts in south-central Washington.
“They’re asking to come look at our schools that have been open, their precautions, how they do it,” he said.
Without a doubt, classroom learning is far more beneficial than remote learning. And the community — that’s you — plays a big role in all of this. Brittany Morrison, with the health district’s COVID-19 Outbreak, Response and Investigative team, has reminded people to be diligent about safety precautions even if they have no direct connection to schools or students
“Social distance, wear a mask, things like that,” she said. “It’s everybody’s priority to make sure that kids are back in schools, and if we’re able to (lower) our community transmission, then we’ll be able to keep them in schools and get high school kids back as well.”
This is yet another reminder of why we should adhere to safety protocols no matter how inconvenient, undignified or politically charged. We do it for others, not just for ourselves.
In this instance, we do it for the kids. Is there a better reason?