FILE — An empty kindergarten classroom at Robertson Elementary School Monday, March 16, 2020, in Yakima, Wash. All 15 Yakima County school districts canceled on-campus classes Monday, March 16, 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Q&A: COVID-19 and Yakima County schools

As the new school year draws closer and districts begin forming plans for safe schooling, public health experts are studying COVID-19 trends and models for potential future spread.

What does that mean for Yakima County? Here are some answers from local, state and independent public health experts:

What does the Yakima Health District say about school this fall?

Yakima Health District spokeswoman Lilian Bravo said the health district and school superintendents are discussing what school might look like this fall.

“Given the fact we’re in a modified Phase 1, we’re a little different than the rest of the state,” she said during a briefing Wednesday. “We’re hoping we can move forward and we can see progress in the community so we can move out of a modified Phase 1 before the fall, but we are still not sure what the fall is going to look like in our community.

“Know that it is a discussion that’s happening every single day. We know it’s important for our families to know what’s going to happen in the fall... We’re hoping we can have the community continue to work together so we can be in a position where we can safely open up schools.”

New research released Monday by the Institute for Disease Modeling suggests safely reopening schools in King County is dependent on community activity outside of campus. How can this research be applied to other communities, like Yakima County?

There are some factors to the research that are King County-specific, Dan Klein, Senior Research Manager for the Institute for Disease Modeling, said during a news conference Wednesday. There is a higher proportion of the population able to work from home in King County, for example, than in Yakima County. This could mean a higher rate of community mobility in Yakima County than King.

But the overall message of the report “absolutely generalizes,” he said: For schools to safely reopen, community activity will have to remain at a reduced level in addition to safety measures within schools, like screening for symptoms, social distancing, mask wearing and breaking students into isolated groups. That means community members need to limit their activities.

“That would absolutely carry over to other communities,” said Klein.

Everyone plays a role in making opening schools possible, said Lacy Fehrenbach, the deputy secretary for COVID-19 response for the Washington State Department of Health. Individuals who can work from home should, she said. And they should avoid social gatherings — they can participate in a videoconference gathering rather than celebrating a friend’s birthday in person, she said.

“Ultimately if we want to open schools, we’re going to have to work really hard as a state to reduce our community transmission rates, which means we’re going to have to reduce our in-person interactions with each other,” said Fehrenbach.

‘Classroom cohorting’ is presented in the new IDM research as one measure schools could use to mitigate the spread of the virus on campus. What might that look like?

“This is essentially grouping students with a teacher or a teacher and a para or some group of adults, and that’s sort of your group of buddies for at least several months but maybe the whole school year. And you don’t mix beyond that group,” said Fehrenbach, referring primarily to elementary students.

“You go to recess together. You go to lunch together or you just take lunch in your classroom. You don’t combine at any point in the day with other classes. You don’t flip and send a few people over to music along with a few people from another cohort. You’re really a tightly knit group.”

It’s unclear if cohorts would be possible for older students who move from one class to the next throughout the day, Klein said. But where it’s possible, cohorts would help limit the spread of the virus in the event that there is a COVID-19 case on campus, he said. It also would help with contact tracing to determine who had come in contact with the COVID-19-positive person and had potentially been exposed.

Transportation would be one complicating factor for cohorts, said Fehrenbach. But on the bus, students would be assigned seats near siblings or their cohorts.

“Those are the people sitting closest together on the bus to the degree it’s possible,” she said. “In some communities, there are going to be multiple cohorts on those buses. We just want to reduce the number that we can wherever we can.”

The state is also encouraging parents and school districts to have students walk, bike or get a ride from parents when possible.

— Janelle Retka

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