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Is it safe to reopen all Tri-Cities schools during the pandemic? Officials are unsure

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 8, 2020

Students from Tri-Cities schools met in Richland on Friday afternoon, demonstrating their collective desire to reopen schools for in-person learning after months of virtual classes due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  (Tri-City Herald)
Students from Tri-Cities schools met in Richland on Friday afternoon, demonstrating their collective desire to reopen schools for in-person learning after months of virtual classes due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Tri-City Herald)
By Cameron Probert Tri-City Herald

RICHLAND – Bailee Brown just wants to be back in school.

“I feel like we’re not learning as much as we could,” the 17-year-old Richland High School senior said. “Students are … just really struggling mentally.”

One of Brown’s friends, a fellow Richland student, died by suicide earlier this year, and she believes his problems were heightened because he was out of school.

All agree most kids do better when they’re in classrooms in person.

What no one can agree on is how safe it is during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brown, like most of the 50 other students and parents that joined her at a protest Friday afternoon near Richland’s Fran Rish Stadium, believes Tri-Cities schools can open safely.

School board President Rick Jansons is not as sure.

The 20-year veteran sees two different recommendations – one from the state and the other from Benton Franklin Health District – and doesn’t know which one to trust.

“Where is the medical advice and risk level appropriate for doing that?” he said. “The two entities responsible for that – the department of health on the state level and at the county level – aren’t in agreement.”

The Richland School Board will be debating the issue again this week when it tries to decide when to reopen its middle and high schools after weeks of preparation and a safety contractor working with the district.

Richland elementary students already are attending in person a few days a week.

Kennewick school officials are facing the same struggle. Kennewick elementary kids also are back in school part-time, but middle and high schoolers are all online.

And in Pasco, Monday is the first day that elementary students head back to classrooms. Preschoolers through second-graders start this week and the rest return two mornings a week starting following week.

Weighing risks

Parents, students and teachers are speaking out on both sides of the issue.

Many, like Brown, say the risks of keeping students out of schools outweigh the risk of spreading the contagious virus.

Others say the threat to the health of teachers and the larger community is too great as new COVID cases continue to climb in Benton and Franklin counties.

The dispute comes down to differing recommendations.

The state doesn’t recommend starting classes until there are less than 75 new cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period.

Since the pandemic began, neither Benton nor Franklin county has fallen to that level. Benton and Franklin counties continue to trend closer to 200 and 300 cases per 100,000, respectively.

Benton Franklin Health District Officer Dr. Amy Person continues supporting opening schools if strict precautions are followed.

State officials say their recommendation is only that, and will likely change sometime soon. They refuse to contradict Person’s recommendation, but they haven’t endorsed it either.

Is it safe?

School boards locally are faced with the difficult choice of trying to determine whether Dr. Person or the state is right.

And the answer is not clear.

Dr. Person has said at various school board meetings that research shows that as long as the districts take steps like maintaining a 6-foot separation between students, wearing masks, and hand washing that the risk to students and teachers in the schools isn’t any greater than outside of the schools.

This Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance also says that mitigation measures can reduce the risk even in the cases like Benton and Franklin counties which are at the higher level of risk.

The more prevention measures in place, the fewer the cases, according to national database put together by a group of education professional groups.

But the prevention measures do not eliminate the chances for cases infections.

And the rate of transmission outside of the school plays a role for what happens inside of schools. The disease modeling used by the state is all based on having 75 cases per 100,000, so it’s hard to tell if higher transmission rates would make opening schools riskier.

Looking outside of the state isn’t a great deal of help either.

University of Washington researcher Sean Gill told the Herald that while several states have allowed parents to choose whether to send their kids back to school, it’s hard to tell whether this has caused an increase in the number of cases in the community.

Gill works at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at UW, where he helped compile a report on the metrics school districts across the country are using to decide on reopening.

While districts nationwide are reporting the number of students they have with COVID, they don’t list how many students are actually attending classes inside schools or have enrolled in a distance learning program.

“When we’re looking at a school if we are trying to ask, ‘Are school openings causing the spread,’ we would need to know how many students are in the building,” he said.

The ambiguity from the state may be hampering the districts’ efforts rather than helping them. Gill said the places that have seen the most success are the ones where the state takes an active hand in guiding the school districts.

Washington’s guidance is better than some states, which solely rely on the local health districts to make the decision, according to a blog post put together by Gill, Robin Lake and Ashley Jochim from the UW center.

“Even when states are providing guidance, it’s based on wildly different yardsticks and employs different thresholds for safe reopening,” the paper said.

The state’s recommendation is more stringent than the recommendation from the Harvard Global Health Initiative. They said it basically guarantees that schools won’t open until the virus disappears.

Other districts

Until Kennewick opened its doors to students in October, the largest school district to hold in-person classes was the Mead School District north of Spokane.

While that county has never dipped below 90 cases per 100,000, the 10,000-student district opened its doors to elementary students and started all upper grades in hybrid learning.

The Spokesman-Review reported on Wednesday that the district had 14 positive tests in the past 14 days and 135 people in quarantine.

At the end of October, Superintendent Shawn Woodward said in a video message that the move had been a success for the school district.

“I’m very pleased that we are an outlier when it comes to our ability to provide a choice of face-to-face instruction,” he said. “What we’re doing is working from a community spread standpoint when it comes to COVID. We’ve been in school for 38 days so far, we’ve had 36 confirmed cases in that time.”

None of those cases are tied to spread within the building, he said. And the school district has 7,300 students back for face-to-face instruction and about 1,000 staff members in their schools.

As of Friday, Kennewick has reported 45 confirmed cases in staff and students in two months. Richland reported 13 cases and Pasco has had 39 positive cases, according to the school districts’ websites.

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