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Health Officer Bob Lutz talks about schools and hard choices about reopening

Lutz  (Kathy Plonka/Spokesman-Review)

School districts that open their doors to students this fall may learn some hard lessons about COVID-19 transmission, Spokane Regional Health Officer Bob Lutz predicted Monday.

“I fully expect to see cases and likely outbreaks,” said Lutz, who said he recognized the challenges of distance learning but urged districts to begin the year with it for most students.

Following Lutz’s “strong recommendation” issued last week, the Spokane, Central Valley and Cheney districts did just that.

However, Mead and East Valley have gone the other way, approving hybrid models that give parents a choice between full-distance and in-person instruction.

Other districts and private schools are still weighing their options.

Lutz urged them to do so carefully, especially after the widely reported case of a Georgia high school that had 250 students and staff quarantined for two weeks after several people tested positive for COVID-19.

The outbreak occurred in the suburbs of Atlanta, a far cry from the rural districts that encompass most of Spokane County.

However, citing national, statewide and local statistics – including an outbreak in Asotin County – Lutz said, “COVID-19 does not recognize geographic borders, or urban vs. rural.”

He added: “Even rural districts should look at the risks.”

Locally and nationally, districts are feeling the pressure from both sides.

Last week, Mead and East Valley officials acknowledged the risk but finally landed on the side of parental choice.

“It’s a no-win solution,” Mead Vice President Chad Burchard said last week.

Both districts were influenced by surveys that showed most parents were in favor of at least having a choice in whether their kids should return.

Superintendents in several other districts told The Spokesman-Review many parents want to see their children back in class.

That was the case at Central Valley, where the school board and Superintendent Ben Small opted to start with distance learning.

That didn’t set well with many parents.

“I can see the reasoning behind the side of not wanting schools to open,” said Jared Locke, who has three children in the Central Valley district, plus 4-year-old twins whose preschool is shuttered by COVID-19.

“However, I think that the people who are making that decision are very myopic,” said Locke, a self-employed auto-repair consultant.

“We were going to have five kids at four different schools – now we’re going to have all five at home,” said Locke, who wishes that CV had followed suit with Mead and given parents a choice.

More tough decisions are ahead.

On Monday night, the Deer Park School District board was scheduled to consider the same choice: a hybrid that includes a rotating in-person schedule, or fully remote learning.

Some districts are struggling to decide.

In a letter sent to parents last week, Liberty Superintendent Brett Baum asked for patience while promising to determine by Friday which path it will take.

“We know and understand that opening school with face-to-face instruction is much preferred to opening with remote learning,” Baum said.

“Please know as well, if we do open with remote learning, we will be prepared to shift back to a face-to-face education model as soon as possible,” Baum added.

At Nine Mile Falls, Superintendent Brian Talbott apologized on Friday for failing to make a final decision.

“We still have some additional information to gather and factors to consider’ prior to providing the school board with a recommendation,” Talbott said.

“In my 28-year career in education, this question has been, by far, the most complex issue that I have ever dealt with,” Talbott added.

Meanwhile, Lutz tried again Monday to push the needle toward distance learning.

“To turn on a dime the way schools had to do in the spring,” Lutz said, shaking his head at the memory.

“But I’ve been so impressed in talking to superintendents in how much they have learned,” Lutz said. “I believe they will be better able to provide distance learning.”