Will they, or won’t they? That’s the question students, parents, teachers, and community members have been asking about schools reopening ever since COVID-19 forced them to close last spring.
Last Thursday, the Enumclaw and White River School Districts gave their answer — the school year will start 100 percent online.
“We know there is no replacement for students experiencing learning with others and from teachers in a face-to-face setting,” ESD wrote in an email to parents. “However, our focus remains on the health and safety of our students and our staff.”
“We know this creates many concerns for families, and we wish we were not bringing you this news so late in the summer,” White River Superintendent Janel Keating Hambly wrote to her community. “We are hopeful that we will be able to shift back to our plans for a hybrid model soon, as COVID-19 cases decrease in Pierce County.”
The Washington State Department of Health had confirmed more than 50,000 cases of coronavirus in the state as of Friday, July 24, with the heaviest outbreaks in King and Yakima County, although thousands of cases have also been reported in the Pierce, Snohomish, Benton, Franklin, and Spokane counties as well. There have been 1,482 deaths, or a 3 percent fatality rate.
It does not appear the number of COVID-19 case numbers in King and Pierce County will be dropping anytime soon — King County’s daily numbers are close to matching those recorded in late March, when experts said the county would see a “peak” in positive cases; Pierce County’s daily numbers have already exceeded their spring peak.
However, it appears Black Diamond, Enumclaw, and Buckley have managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic. Enumclaw saw its peak in late March before daily positive case numbers fell to nearly zero in mid-May, though 17 cases have been confirmed between June 2 and July 22, King County Health Department data shows. There have been 22 total deaths, most or all seemingly related to local long-term health care facilities.
There were only seven cases and one death confirmed in Black Diamond in the spring, and none in June, but six cases were reported between July 10 and 22.
The Pierce County Health Department has not been able to determine how many people in Buckley may have fallen ill; however, East Pierce County in general has seen 106 cases and four deaths. It’s not clear how whether the area is seeing a rise in cases like the rest of the county in general.
These rising case numbers promoted the Washington Education Association’s Board of Directors to write a July 23 letter demanding schools start with distance-learning this coming fall.
“Statewide, more than 120,000 public educators are in school buildings each day. They are our teachers, bus drivers, librarians, office staff, para educators, food service workers, nurses, counselors, therapists, and countless other professionals who support and serve our students,” the board wrote. “We know that nearly one out of five are over 60 years old, and many have underlying health conditions. We also know that more students than ever live in multi-generational homes, and many themselves also have underlying health conditions. If we proceed with opening schools for in-person learning while the number of cases continues to grow, some students, educators, and family members will contract the virus. Some will recover. Some will have long-lasting health complications. And some will die. These are the facts and they cannot be denied.”
HYBRID LEARNING WAS STRONGLY CONSIDERED
Before local districts announced the school year will start fully online, Enumclaw and White River were strongly considering — maybe even nearly finalizing — plans to start the school year with an distance-learning/in-person hybrid.
Even as recently as July 21, ESD updated parents via social media that they were planning an “A/B” schedule for students grades 6 through 12. In short, students in the “A” group would have attended school in-person two days of the week, and the “B” group a different two days, with the fifth weekday set aside for staff and teacher training, or for working with students who need extra academic help. This would have worked alongside a 100 percent remote learning option.
White River was planning much of the same — “A” students would have gone to school Monday and Wednesday, and “B” students Tuesday and Thursday, with Friday set aside for extra tutelage.
Of course, planning for in-school education had many logistical challenges that started even before school started, as educators and staff would have to rely on parents checking their children exhibited no signs of COVID-19 infection before stepping onto a bus or into a school facility. White River was also planning limited on-site checks, the district wrote on its website before the switch in plans, and Enumclaw noted “daily health screenings” on its site.
Transportation would have looked much different as well. White River said students would have to sit six feet away from each other on the bus, though siblings or those living in the same home can be together. This could have significantly affected how many children could arrive to school by bus, and WRSD encouraged any families that were able to independently transport their children to do so.
Plans for how the district would tackle passing periods and lunches were not detailed, but likely offered similar health and safety challenges.
LOCAL HEALTH DEPARTMENTS SUPPORT ONLINE LEARNING
Both the King County and Pierce County health departments issued statements supporting the decision for local school districts starting the school year 100 percent online.
“When it comes to COVID-19 activity, schools have been put in a position of having to make decisions based on the actions of our entire community. No educator, parent, or public health professional would choose to limit face-to-face interaction that we know is so critical for our young people, but with lives at stake, this is the difficult position schools are in,” Patty Hayes, Director of Public Health – Seattle & King County, said in a statement on the department’s blog, Public Health Insider. “This is not inevitable. We know what we need to do as a community to bring transmission down so that all schools can re-open. Together, by committing to wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing, and reducing interactions with people outside of your household, we can all help get our young people back in the classroom.”
“Based on the COVID-19 disease activity in Pierce County and our region, I do not feel it is safe to open schools in September for traditional classroom learning,” Anthony Chen, director of health at the Tacoma – Pierce County Health Department, wrote on his department’s blog. “The situation could change, and I may change my recommendation at a later date. I am offering this recommendation at this time to respect our local school districts’ needs to plan and make decisions to have time to implement. Schools should still plan for onsite and hybrid models that districts could implement if the situation improves.”