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COVID-19

News >  K-12 education

Rural Washington school districts face special challenges in reopening

Medical Laboratory Scientist Brandi Fry tests a patient who asked that his name not be used for COVID-19 at a drive up testing facility on Monday, April 13, 2020, at Newport Health Center in Newport, Wash. Many shool districts in more rural counties like Pend Oreille County are opting to start the school year virtually because case counts have increased.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
Medical Laboratory Scientist Brandi Fry tests a patient who asked that his name not be used for COVID-19 at a drive up testing facility on Monday, April 13, 2020, at Newport Health Center in Newport, Wash. Many shool districts in more rural counties like Pend Oreille County are opting to start the school year virtually because case counts have increased. (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

Even in the most remote school districts of Eastern Washington, there’s no hiding from COVID-19.

By letter, email and video, families got the bad news from their superintendents earlier this month: A return to full on-site learning is on hold for now.

Only a few weeks ago, many districts were confident they could start the year with all students back into buildings. COVID-19 infection rates had dropped to acceptable rates, while teachers and staff had worked to assemble safe classrooms and other protocols.

A midsummer spike in positive coronavirus tests, however, threw those plans into disarray, pushing most rural districts into a higher-risk category despite those counties moving to Phase 3.

Last week, Chewelah School District Superintendent Rich McFarland summed up the situation in a video.

“With a heavy heart and great disappointment, I need to share with you a change of plans,” McFarland said as he explained the need to delay full in-person instruction and begin the year with online instruction only.

“We had removed desks and tables,” McFarland said in a voice full of frustration as he discussed the need to follow the strong recommendation of health officials in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties.

“Their advice is very clear,” McFarland said in joining most of the Tri-County districts.

In some ways, rural school districts are getting the worst of both worlds from the pandemic.

Relative isolation means less access to medical care, and hasn’t translated into lower infection rates; as of Wednesday, Lincoln County’s rolling 14-day average of newly designated positive tests stood at 155 per 100,000 residents – only slightly less than Spokane County’s rate.

Rates in Stevens, Pend Oreille and Whitman counties have fallen to below 100 per 100,000 but are still well above the threshold recommended by state officials for a full return to school.

Back-to-school models vary by district, but all are using hybrid or distance learning.

Isolation also means less internet connectivity for distance learning.

During a statewide webinar Monday on educational equity, Davenport Superintendent Jim Kowalkowsi said that broadband access is a major issue in his district.

The district has had to resort to opening up hotspots in parking lots. Although the district gave all students Chromebooks, Kowalkowski said not all students have remote access to use them.

Adding to the frustration, most of the counties bordering Spokane County have moved to Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, yet school districts are being guided by a more stringent recommendation from health districts.

That means getting consistently below 75 per 100,000 for a move to a hybrid model and below 25 for full-time learning.

“We do trust our county health people, because they have our interests at heart,” said Jerry Pugh, superintendent of the 500-student Colfax School District.

Fully committed at the beginning of the month to a full return to in-person learning, the Colfax school board pivoted to distance learning at Monday’s meeting.

Colfax has another challenge. Most residents do their shopping in Pullman and Spokane, increasing the risk of exposure.

“Pullman, that place is just humming right now,” Pugh said. “It’s just the law of averages, that people are going to catch COVID and then come back to our community.”

Despite their small size, most other Whitman County districts are making similar plans.

Districts in smaller counties face another problem: wild fluctuations in the positive-test rate.

On July 7, Stevens County had a rolling average of 19.7 positive tests per 100,000 residents over 14 days and a clear path to full in-person learning. Two weeks later, the rate had more than tripled, to 70.2; and by Aug. 6 it hit 94, prompting the retreat to distance learning and hybrid models.

For school administrators, that was a cautionary tale for upcoming decisions on when to return to the classroom.

“We have a lot of fluctuations,” Pugh said. “That will mean we become more cautious about moving forward.”

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