Yakima-based private schools are gearing up to return to campus for face-to-face learning following strict public health guidelines — if they are permitted.

La Salle High School, Riverside Christian School and St. Joseph Marquette Catholic School all have plans for socially distanced learning, in-depth sanitation and hygiene practices and masking.

They have coordinated with the Yakima Health District on their strategies.

“We have some pretty distinct advantages,” said La Salle High School President Tim McGree, comparing the 9-12 high school to area public schools.

The campus has spacious classrooms that allow for social distancing of 6 feet between student desks, for example, as well as extensive nontraditional classroom space that can be used, like the campus gym or the 40-acre lot the school lies on, he said.

Some classes have been downsized to allow for social distancing, creating a few more classes, said McGree. Some teachers will take on a sixth-

period course and extra compensation to accommodate the changes. He said about 20 summer school students are using the template that will be implemented more broadly across the 220 enrolled students when fall classes start Aug. 20.

But these are hopeful plans, so far.

Administrators at La Salle, Riverside and St. Joseph Marquette said a return to campus depends on state approval. They each have backup plans for remote learning, but they’re hoping that won’t be necessary.

By next week, the Yakima Health District expects to receive word from the state Department of Health and Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction on what will be allowed, said chief operating officer Ryan Ibach. That could be remote, in-person or hybrid learning.

State and local guidance

Yakima County is in Phase 1 of the state’s four-stage reopening program. Ibach said in Phase 1 and 1.5 counties, health departments can make contingency plans for the start of school, like requiring fully remote learning.

“We’d prefer the state make a uniform decision on that, rather than county by county,” he said. “So we’re waiting for the state.”

Ibach said the health district expects a decision by early next week. The state’s guidance could be a blanket statement or might outline guidance based on county metrics. This could take a county’s rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population into consideration, or the percentage of positive tests, he suggested.

Whatever the state decides, Ibach said the Yakima Health District was unlikely to make the local guidelines any stricter. But the health district is imploring schools to follow proper social distancing and masking if they allow students to return to campus.

Ibach said any announcement will address how the school year starts. But guidelines could evolve, he said.

“We have told all districts you’ve got to be flexible, because things can change,” he said. “Communicate with parents and staff the same thing: Things could change, so just be flexible.”

Safety on campus

A return to campus anywhere in the state involves new measures such as temperature checks, screenings, extra hand sanitizer stations, mandatory face masks and social distancing, among other things. Requirements were outlined by the state in June.

Some districts are eyeing a hybrid model of teaching if students are allowed to return to campus. This would allow groups of students to rotate which days they are on campus or learning remotely, primarily influenced by small classrooms that make social distancing challenging or impossible at full capacity.

But for area private schools, that’s not much of a concern.

At La Salle, McGree said there was capacity to take on more students while maintaining strict social distancing. He also said the school is considering whether to practice cohorting, a proposed method for reducing the spread of the virus in schools. It means that students would be placed in groups that would keep to themselves, eliminating crossover in lunchrooms or electives, for instance.

Riverside also has room to take on more students, depending on the grade, said Superintendent Richard Van Beek. The school has about 300 students enrolled in preschool through grade 12 for the new school year, compared to about 360 last year, he said. Some parents experienced financial hardships because of the economic shutdown, while others are undecided as plans for the new school year are yet to be ironed out.

VanBeek said social distancing would be feasible because of the school’s large classrooms and small class sizes. Lunch and break periods would be in rotations to prevent crowding, he said.

St. Joseph Marquette, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, will maintain slightly reduced enrollment to accommodate social distancing, said principal Gregg Pleger. Depending on the class and classroom, they might be knocked down by two to four students, he said. Enrollment is already slightly lower, with some families undecided on returning or choosing to homeschool.

Students will also be cohorting in a sense, he said. The campus has three buildings: one for preschool and kindergarten; one for first through fifth grade students and one for sixth through eighth. Students in each of these buildings will not mix, said Pleger, preventing potential spread from one building to the next in the event of a confirmed COVID-19 case.

Learning curve

For younger students at Riverside, Van Beek said the school was looking for creative ways to help them understand the safety measures they’ll follow on campus. He referenced a video he saw in which pool noodles and hula hoops were used to show students how far apart to stand in a fun way.

Van Beek hoped that students would be accustomed to wearing masks regularly by the time school started. The school will have face shields available for students who struggle with masks. He said otherwise, teachers would have to encourage students to follow practices like thorough hand-washing or keeping their distance.

At St. Joseph Marquette, students will be assigned a school entrance near their classroom to limit crossover of students from one class to a next. At the middle school level, students will still rotate classes throughout the day. But teachers will then sanitize seats and tables between classes. The students will receive sanitizer when leaving or entering class and be responsible for wiping their respective place dry before beginning class.

Overall, the administrators said it will be a learning curve. But students are expected to grow accustomed to the safety practices.

Teachers and teaching

Another concern for the return to in-person learning is the safety of staff, some of whom are over the age of 60 or have existing health conditions, making them among those most vulnerable to COVID-19. Public school districts must negotiate with their unions, like those representing teachers, paraprofessional or bus drivers.

At La Salle, Riverside and St. Joseph Marquette, administrators said there had been little to no pushback among teachers at the suggestion of returning to campus, and that the safety of staff and students was a priority.

But not all classes will resume in person.

Van Beek said students were going to miss athletics, band and choir — elective losses that he said could impact students’ career trajectory.

“Those kinds of things that have to be put on hold for the time being,” he said.

But Riverside was looking for creative ways to still offer a rounded school experience. He said social distancing in art classes would allow those to continue, for example.

At St. Joseph Marquette, physical education might incorporate individualistic activities like yoga. Mass will also need to be reworked to serve smaller groups of students.

Remote, just in case

All of these plans are contingent on approval from authorities. Even if they receive approval to start the year in person, they could quickly be shut down — like school was in the spring — if there’s a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, administrators acknowledged. Each school has plans for remote learning if that happens.

St. Joseph Marquette also has an option for families who would prefer to learn from home, even if campus is open, said Pleger. If school resumes in person, the first week will be spent on orientation, helping students familiarize with learning platforms in the event that a closure happens, he added.

What’s more, remote learning in the event of a closure would look different than it did in the spring, he said, with teachers breaking class sessions into smaller groups to ensure more interaction with each student, among other things.

But the hope is students will start on campus and build connections with their teachers before a potential switch to remote learning, said Pleger. Without that relationship and mutual trust, common misunderstandings like tone in an email could easily derail learning, he said.

“We really need to have these children in front of teachers in a way that they can connect with them and get a good start ... so there’s trust and understanding and that rapport is there,” he said. “It’s so critical to education.”

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