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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What’s next for schools after Inslee announcement on Wednesday?

William Hodge carries his second-grade daughter Ava’s backpack after picking her up from Sheridan Elementary School on Wednesday in Spokane. The school is considering changing its name in light of its namesake's brutality against Indigenous people.   (Dan Pelle/THESPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Backed by data that shows little correlation between learning models and in-school infection rates, Gov. Jay Inslee and state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal have challenged schools to push the pace on returning students to the classroom.

“Get to the work of it, follow the safety protocols, and take note we are in the business of serving young people,” Reykdal said.

But will school officials do so before time runs out on older students, especially this year’s high school seniors?

Students, parents and teachers are pondering the same question in wake of Wednesday’s announcement by Inslee that gave school officials a path forward to reopen schools.

In Spokane Public Schools, only kindergartners through 2nd graders are back in schools. The other approximately 22,000 students in Spokane haven’t been in a classroom for nine months.

If the district continues to bring back students at the current pace, critics say, high school seniors might get back in school just in time to sign each other’s yearbooks.

“When will seniors ever get back to school?” Sophie Winterroth, a student advisor with the Spokane Public Schools and a senior at Shadle Park High School, asked the school board last month.

The district had no answers then, and still doesn’t.

There are no definite plans beyond Jan. 6, when Superintendent Adam Swinyard and his staff will offer a tentative plan to bring 3rd-graders back to buildings.

“We’re eager to bring kids back,” Swinyard said Thursday. “We’re going to bring kids back as soon as possible, with the guidance of state and regional health officials.”

That guidance was reinforced late Thursday afternoon by Interim Spokane Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez, who announced his support for phasing 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students back to the classroom starting in mid-January.

“We’re watching the data closely and will include specific expectations of the school districts within our guidance,” Velázquez said. “We feel confident in the plans these school districts have developed.”

Spokane and Central Valley, the two largest districts in the county, have followed a conservative approach since the beginning of the year. With COVID-19 rates rising in late summer, the districts started with distance learning only which seemed to be the prudent approach.

Meanwhile, local districts that opted for in-person and hybrid models – notably Mead, Deer Park and East Valley – were criticized for bowing to parental pressure and putting teachers and students at risk.

Three months later, the script has flipped.

Early in Wednesday’s meeting, Inslee displayed a multicolored chart produced by the Institute for Disease Modeling. Its overarching message: that regardless of the learning model – in-person, distance-only and everything in between – schools are not significant drivers of COVID transmission as long as safety protocols are in place.

“The thing that is impressive is that they differ very little,” Inslee said. “That has been an important consideration.”

However, there are other factors in play, Swinyard said. Among them is Spokane County’s soaring infection rates, which on Thursday reached a record 891 per 100,000 residents in the past two weeks. That’s above the new 350 per 100,000 threshold recommended for returning anyone beyond 5th grade.

And while low in-school transmissions have been touted at Spokane as well as Mead (with 7 and 5, respectively, so far this year) there is currently a greater risk for out-of-school transmission.

“In a county with high case counts, you are going to have staff and students at greater risk of out-of-school exposure,” Swinyard said.

In addition, secondary schools aren’t designed for cohorting, as students move from class to class for different subjects, and are less inclined to follow safety rules.

Those aren’t excuses, insisted Swinyard, who also points to the increased difficulty of contact tracing as cases rise in the county.

It’s the same story at Central Valley, where 3rd-graders have been back in school since last month.

We are taking time to attentively review the governor’s new guidance,” Superintendent Ben Small said in a statement.

“As we continue to work with the Spokane Regional Health District here locally, we are looking forward to resuming our reopening plans as we are safely able to do so with our students and staff,” Small added.

Another obstacle is a new guideline for districts in high-risk counties to limit classrooms to 15 students.

Currently many K-2 classes in Spokane Public Schools have up to 20 students while adhering to 6-foot distancing rules.

Swinyard said the district is seeking clarification on whether the 15-student maximum is a requirement for existing classes; if so, some children may have to be moved.

Board member Nikki Otero Lockwood said she welcome the progress.

“I’m so glad we now have solid evidence to support bringing back more students,” Lockwood said. “That is a celebration. I hope that our community will make following public health guidance a priority during their holidays so we can have more reason to celebrate instead of mourning more losses. It’s been a hard year.”

And what of the teachers?

Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, said he was skeptical of the relaxed thresholds.

“My hope is that the governor and those who are advising him are correct,” Delaney said. “This is quite a gamble to take, and ultimately, it’s gambling with the safety of 140,000 educators.”

Delaney said he is unaware of any teacher in the state who has died from the virus.

Jeremy Shay, president of the Spokane Education Association, said his membership runs the gamut.

“I’ve heard from some that are really concerned, but some that are ready and eager to get back,” Shay said.

Shay said he sympathized with parents of older children. However, like Swinyard, he has reservations about the feasibility of their return, given high COVID rates and adolescent resistance to mask mandates and other rules.

“They’re more like adults that way, more defiant,” Shay said.

Meanwhile, in Mead and Deer Park, there’s no smugness, just a sense of relief.

Both districts have struggled at times with high rates of COVID, or at least higher than those who started with distance learning only.

Mead began the year two weeks late because of COVID issues and smoky skies.

“But considering the rough start we had in August and September, our staff has done a great job,” Superintendent Shawn Woodward said.

At Deer Park, which employs a hybrid model – two days of in-person learning per week for all grades – Superintendent Travis Hanson said that “all things considered, things are going remarkably well.”

“It’s been an incredibly challenging fall, and as I look back over the last few months, I feel pride about the way our school district has gone about this,” he said.

Hanson stressed that without perfect hindsight, it was impossible to decide in August what option was best.

“I don’t think they made the wrong decision,” Hanson said regarding the decisions of Spokane and Central Valley. “I think they made the decision that was right for their community.”