Students sit on tables assigned to their cohort during lunch Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in the cafeteria at Grandview High School in Grandview, Wash.

Recent efforts by Yakima County officials to clarify recommendations for social distancing at school might have further complicated the issue.

While there have been a series of discussions around the new guidance at the county level, the decision of whether to reduce distancing between students to 3 feet remains in the hands of school districts.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the school district,” said Ryan Ibach, chief operating officer for the health district.

The discussion

Late last month, the state reduced the COVID-19 social distancing requirements for K-12 classrooms in Washington from 6 feet to 3 feet, following recent changes in federal guidelines.

According to the new guidance, teachers and staff should maintain 6 feet of distance from students and each other, with the 3 feet applying to distance between students. Students should also maintain 6 feet of distance when eating, doing activities such as PE and music, or when in hallways and gymnasiums. Middle and high school students who aren’t in isolated “cohort” groups should still be placed at 6 feet apart in places where the number of people infected is still above 200 per 100,000 population over a two week period, or where the test positivity rate is above 10%.

Days later, the Yakima Health District echoed the guidance in a communication to Yakima County superintendents. The Yakima County Board of Health then “discussed a need for additional clarity,” according to a news release from the health district.

The board’s agreed upon motion recommended that county schools “start making plans to return to school full time using current Department of Health guidelines and using cohort models when metrics require to accomplish this when we don’t meet case rates or test positivity rates.”

Yakima County had 209 cases per 100,000 people from March 13-26. The local positivity rate was 10.6% from March 12-18.

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Confusion in recommendations

County Commissioner Amanda McKinney, who introduced the Board of Health motion, said the board’s recommendation “specifically removes the metric requirements.”

“The goal is to give a clear green light to those districts who want to move forward with plans that reduce the social distance to 3 feet, irrespective of the metrics,” she said by email. “Without expressly removing the metrics, we likely would have seen little to no change by the end of this school year within those Districts who knew they had safe plans forward to welcome children back into the classroom full-time.”

McKinney pointed to public schools that began the school year remotely due to high transmission rates and guidance from the state, even while private schools in Yakima County returned to in person, as an example of the need for “express recommendation.” Local private schools reintroduced students counter to formal public health guidance but with planning help from the Yakima Health District, while public schools waited for the green light from the health district to return grades of students to campus. Yakima County districts later served as a model for safe in-person learning for other schools in the state.

Ibach said instead of clarifying the distancing guidance, the board of health’s recommendation further complicated it.

“I think it added confusion,” he said.

He said the board’s recommendation was no different than previous recommendations from the district and state: when the transmission thresholds are not met, cohorting is recommended for middle and high schools reducing spacing to 3 feet between students.

Since Yakima County is above the metric thresholds, middle schools and high schools are recommended to follow cohorting to reduce space, said Ibach. He said Selah, Zillah and Sunnyside school districts planned to maintain cohorting among middle school students and reduce distancing between students, following this guideline. But among high school students who often cycle through several classes in a single day, it “is more difficult to keep the kids together, because they have to switch classes.” He said the inability to cohort was what was stopping higher level grades from reducing distance, rather than the metrics.

Regardless of recommendations, the final call is up to school districts, Ibach said.

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