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FILE—La Salle High School junior Eva Saenz works on a history assignment while using a school-provided iPad Friday, April 3, 2020, at her home in Yakima, Wash.

As the Yakima School District prepares for the return of classes in the fall, a full online schooling option will be available to families, with a hybrid option or full return to campus depending on local virus trends.

The district has begun expanding its community broadband internet reach as well as distributing devices to students across all grades to accommodate the plan. It’s working on developing plans for how to better reach younger K-2 students with 100% remote learning, but feels prepared to reach students in grades 3-12. 

“Right now, we’re confident we can provide 100% online (learning) for those families,” said communications director Kirsten Fitterer. “We’re mostly concentrated on distance learning 2.0 to see how it would work best for our teachers and other instructional leaders to continue learning in a virtual or hybrid model.”

Reopening?

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has said schools statewide are expected to resume in-person instruction in the fall following certain public health guidelines like sanitation, mask wearing and COVID-19 screenings. But local health officials say it’s too early to tell if local schools will be ready to open fully. Education officials or the governor could decide against it if coronavirus cases are on the rise.

Yakima County long led the state in new cases of COVID-19, only being surpassed this week by Franklin County as infections in Yakima began to decline slightly. The county has begun to make progress, and recently moved to Phase 1.5 of a four-part reopening plan outlined by the state. But public health officials say there’s still a long way to go.

Fitterer said regardless of Yakima’s virus trends by Aug. 26, when school starts, families will be offered the chance for remote learning in case they don’t feel comfortable sending their children back to campus.

She said the district had not determined what progress would allow for a hybrid or full return to campus. She expected clearer guidelines by early next week.

But she did point to buildings being able to reopen for after-hours gatherings of 50 or fewer people once the county reaches Phase 3.

Early details

In the event a hybrid return is used, students requiring more learning support — like special education students, English learners and potentially kindergarteners — would be prioritized in returning to campus. This is in line with guidance from the OSPI, released in June.

“There will have to be some prioritization, because there’s only so much room,” Fitterer said. “We do have students who are going to be in higher need, so they will have the opportunity … to have more of a presence and services at school.”

With a hybrid school reopening, Fitterer said students might also be broken into groups: one might attend school on campus on Monday and Tuesday, followed by a deep cleaning of the school before the second group attends Thursday and Friday.

She said the district understands there are also parents who need schools to be open daily, and it is working to meet a variety of needs.

The district has begun staging classrooms to see what the capacity of each school would be with social distancing in place — separating desks by 6 feet, for example.

In case that campus is open but students choose remote learning, they would be expected to commit to this learning style on a semester basis, rather than fluctuating from week to week, for example.

The remote learning option could also help accommodate teachers or paraprofessionals who are considered vulnerable to the virus due to age or compromised immune systems, she said.

More details of the district’s fall plans will be published as they are decided on a website previously dedicated to COVID-19 updates, with the first update expected Thursday afternoon. Fitterer said a news conference with more details was set for early next week, and a virtual town hall to better inform the broader public will be held before the end of July.

This story has been updated to correct that devices are available to students across all grades. The district is still preparing plans that would make 100% online learning available to students in K-2, not devices.

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