The Yakima School District isn’t ready yet to reduce social distancing between students from 6 to 3 feet.
On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that districts could reduce the distance between students in classrooms to 3 feet effective immediately, following some specific guidelines. The move allows schools to bring back more students for in-person learning.
Regional school Superintendent Kevin Chase of Educational Service District 105 said he expects to see 80% of Yakima County school districts to make the change. But Yakima School District, the largest in the county by far with nearly 16,000 students, is not yet ready to do so.
Cases have been rising lately, and Superintendent Trevor Greene said Thursday the district wants to reassess after spring break.
“We have been very conservative and safety-conscious in our approach over the last year plus,” he said. “We are in our second week of our return to full hybrid. In those two weeks, we have seen a significant number of positive cases in our schools among students and with staff.”
In the past two weeks, the school district has conducted 231 COVID-19 case investigations that showed 20 positive tests among students and four positive tests among staff members, said Stacey Locke, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations and lead on their internal COVID-19 response team. None of the cases were found to have been transmitted on campus. But those numbers are up from about 20 investigations and one or two positive cases a week prior to students’ mass return to part-time in-person learning, she said.
With the district conducting its own COVID-19 monitoring to report to the Yakima Health District, Locke said the district didn’t have the capacity to safely oversee the entire student body’s return to campus.
“If we were to bring everybody back every day, you could possibly see the number of investigations doubling and even possibly the number of cases doubling within the pre-K-12 part of our school district,” said Locke. “As you look at that, that would put an extreme amount of stress on our health service department to keep all students and staff safe in the school environment.”
Locke said school nursing and health staff lead these investigations, which means potential exposure is identified same day. She attributed the lack of on-campus transmission to this rapid response, and said putting extra stress on the staff and system could disrupt its efficacy, putting students and staff at risk.
While the Yakima Health District has a team that oversees investigation in other schools throughout the county, Locke and Greene said the health district appreciated the district’s management of this process. The school district provides its internal data to the health district weekly.
Greene said that since students have returned to part-time in-person learning this month, engagement and work completion has improved dramatically. He said by not risking closure of campus from outbreaks caused by reduced distancing between students, the district could ensure this academic growth would continue among students.
Locke said the district expects an increase in community COVID-19 transmission over spring break in early April, making it best to postpone a transition to 3 feet of distance between students.
“We’ll reassess after spring break,” Greene said. “We’re not going to jeopardize our success in moving forward through the remainder of this year unless we can document and fully ensure that we can move forward in a very safe manner that will allow us to continue to track cases, and to be true to our values of safety first and looking after our community members that serve us so well.
“I’m not saying that we’ll finish the year in hybrid,” Greene added of part-time in-person learning. “But I’m fairly confident that if we did … we could do so with our heads held high, knowing that we served our students in a way we can be proud of … (with) differentiated support, safety, security, and all our other services.”