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Principal Maria Lucero, center, speaks to her first grade teachers about planning continued learning courses for students while schools are closed Monday, March 30, 2020, at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Yakima, Wash.

A full return to school buildings is likely off the table until a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available, according to Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, which provides support to regional districts.

The exception might be schools with very small student populations, he said by phone Wednesday, pointing to Klickitat County’s Bickleton School District — a P-12 district with 124 students enrolled in the 2019-20 school year, according to state data.

By comparison, Yakima County’s smallest district is Union Gap, a K-8 school with 663 students.

During a Yakima Health District news briefing earlier in the day, Chase outlined three possible models that districts are preparing for school this fall. A full return to campus is not one of them.

  • One option would be a fully virtual program, in which students remain enrolled in their district but study through a pre-arranged curriculum made for online learning. Local examples of this are Toppenish’s Cats Academy online learning platform and West Valley Virtual Academy, he said later by phone. Both are accredited programs with grade-specific materials and teachers that are distinct from the districts’ general education. Chase said each local district likely would have an offering like this, using standard curriculum purchased by the district.
  • A second virtual option would be an improved version of the remote learning offered in the spring, he said. Classroom teachers would continue to guide curriculum, instruction and connections with students and their families. This would allow for curriculum tailored to districts’ learning targets. Chase said more time has allowed professional development for teachers and connectivity improvements.
  • A third option would be dependent on positive virus trends: a hybrid learning model that would allow students to attend school on campus for a couple of days each week and study online the rest, he said. In this case, building attendance would be staggered to allow smaller class sizes and social distancing.

Local districts have said they expect guidance from the local health district by the first week of August on what approach to starting school will be approved.

Announcements

Some school districts in Western Washington have begun to announce school will start remotely — in some cases backtracking on previous plans to resume in-person learning. Seattle, Bellevue, Northshore, Highline, Renton, Federal Way, Auburn and Kent have all announced the decision.

The decision for Seattle Public Schools came after a recent report by the Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue about community transmission. Researchers said community activity in the Seattle area was too high for schools to reopen safely, and more effort was needed to stop the spread of the virus. The researchers said the connection between school safety and community activity can be applied to other communities.

Chase said it was a “very distinct possibility” that as more schools stick with remote learning, the state may mandate that all districts start school remotely in the fall.

Chase noted some differences between Central Washington public schools and those along the I-5 corridor — local districts may be more rural and smaller. But he also said many of the issues schools are struggling to overcome in reopening are similar statewide. These include teaching, feeding and busing students safely.

He noted that nationally — and in Yakima County specifically — there is a shortage of bus drivers. Many of the existing bus driver workforce is retirement age, putting them in a group considered among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Chase said this means schools likely would struggle to staff enough buses to transport students to school if buildings reopened, let alone find a way to keep students distanced and safe on the buses. It’s one of several issues schools statewide are grappling with, he said.

Chase said schools are likely to prioritize face-to-face learning opportunities for high-risk students nonetheless. This might include those with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness or those in foster care.

“Districts recognize some of those kids have been disenfranchised (during remote schooling) and are going to do what they can to make that up,” he said.

Child care dilemmas

Asked if there were plans to provide care and oversight for children of essential workers, for example, who can’t stay home with students in case of remote learning, Chase said there was no clear solution. He pointed to child care programs that have remained open in spite of the pandemic as a possible support for these families, but conceded the child care industry is also struggling.

“I don’t have the magic bullet for daycare,” he said. “It’s definitely a Catch 22: Until we can get kids out of the home into school or daycare, how can we get parents back to work? It’s a conundrum.”

Nationwide, child care centers have closed amid the pandemic, with many programs expected to shut permanently. In Yakima County, where there was a shortage of child care openings prior to COVID-19, 56 child care programs had closed since mid-March due to the virus, according to data from Child Care Aware of Washington updated last week. Some remaining providers had open spots while children remain at home with their parents. There were 1,209 vacancies at existing programs last week.

Chase said districts are working hard to find solutions that meet all students’ needs, but that amid a pandemic there is no flawless approach.

“We’re not going to be perfect, but we’re going to do better,” he said.

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