Yakima County school district leaders and public health officials have begun discussing what the new school year will look like — and how to make sure it’s a safe environment for students and staff.
In mid-March, all campuses closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The order was later extended through the end of the school year, and teaching went remote.
But schools statewide are expected to resume in-person instruction in the fall, the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction said earlier this month. The state outlined some broad guidelines that apply to all schools. COVID-19 screening will take place each day, masks will be mandatory and desks will be spaced 6 feet apart, for example. There are also guidelines for sanitation.
Schools in counties that have not progressed to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan will need approval from their local health districts to reopen, however. And local health conditions could mean that a health district or the governor decides against a reopening.
In Yakima County, where new case counts and hospitalizations for COVID-19 are on the rise, it’s hard to say what virus trends will look like when school is set to resume, said Ryan Ibach, chief operating officer for the Yakima Health District. But the health district has begun conversations with local superintendents to discuss possible options and necessary preparations for the fall, he said.
“The first priority is safety,” said Ibach.
Local virus trends could change significantly in the more than two months before the start of school, said Ibach. In order for schools to reopen, the health district would like trends to decline significantly, he said.
A primary concern is hospital capacity.
Late last week, county hospitals exceeded staffing capacity. On Thursday, for example, Virginia Mason Memorial had no intensive care or non-intensive care beds available even after transferring at least 17 patients out of the county. Multiple patients were forced to wait overnight for bed space.
Local case counts have also continued to rise more than a month after increased testing was rolled out, said Ibach — showing the rise in cases is not due solely to increased testing. What’s more, an increasing percentage of deaths related to COVID-19 are taking place in the general population — outside of long-term care facility outbreaks, he said.
“Those types of numbers need to really come down,” said Ibach.
Depending on progress in the county in mitigating the virus, Ibach said in-person learning might need to be modified in Yakima, such as holding school on campus only a couple times a week to minimize exposure.
Regardless of whether learning resumes on campus in the fall, schools must have a plan ready to resume long-term remote learning in case of a new outbreak of COVID-19. Ibach said local districts are also preparing these arrangements.
Returning to campus
When it comes to bringing students back to campus, Ibach said local plans might vary from one school campus to the next, even within the same district.
At the elementary school level, for example, there might be minimal potential exposures to track in case of contamination since students have one teacher for their core classes. But at the middle school and high school level, there are class rotations and packed hallways throughout the day. Others considerations include how to safely bus students, for example.
“Those are some of the concerns that we’re trying to address,” he said.
Feeling of safety
Another question, said Ibach, is whether families would even feel safe sending their kids back to school if dramatic improvements haven’t been made in curbing the virus.
“If we’re still in Phase 1, or 1.5 or 2, do parents want their kids going to school and being exposed and bringing it back to their house?” Ibach asked.
Ibach said he has heard concerns about students living with grandparents or immunocompromised siblings potentially bringing the virus home, for example. Those over the age of 60, individuals who have underlying health conditions or are pregnant are at high-risk to the respiratory virus.
Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, an agency that provides supports to area school districts, said local superintendents are discussing both in-person options for learning in the fall and “continuous learning 2.0,” or the continuation of remote learning. He said this option would likely be available for families fearful of contamination as well as those opposed to their children wearing masks due to medical reasons or personal beliefs.
Ibach said districts are also discussing what arrangements can be made if school staff are opposed to wearing masks.
To reopen, local schools will need supplies ranging from masks to gloves and sanitizer, which are in high demand nationally, said Ibach. The hope is to have enough for the school year ahead of the fall start.
Both Ibach and Chase said there were a lot of moving parts yet to iron out at the local level, and that it was still early in the planning process. But they said school administrators were having conversations with the health district and across the community to brainstorm best options.
“Districts are listening to what parents are having to say, and we’re going to try to create as many offerings to meet the needs of parents and kids,” said Chase. “It won’t be a one-size fits all.”
In Yakima School District, which has the largest student population in the county with 16,000 students, local plans for the school year are expected to be released the week of July 6.