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Hundreds of students and school staff are quarantined as the pandemic intensifies in the Inland Northwest

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 14, 2020

Lake City high school posted social distancing regulations outside their stadium during a high school football game against Lakeland on Friday, August 28, 2020, at Lake City High School in Coeur d'Alene, Id.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Lake City high school posted social distancing regulations outside their stadium during a high school football game against Lakeland on Friday, August 28, 2020, at Lake City High School in Coeur d'Alene, Id. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Allen and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

The surging COVID-19 pandemic is hitting Inland Northwest schools harder than ever, with at least 1,800 public school students and staff quarantined in Spokane and Kootenai counties as of Friday afternoon.

Mirroring the rising incidence in the general population, the alarming growth in infections of students and staff comes as overall cases continue to surge in Spokane County and in the Idaho Panhandle. With that rise in cases, community transmission is much more likely. And while children are less likely to have severe illness from the virus, they can still spread it to others.

“As we see a higher number of cases in the community, the likelihood for anyone to be exposed to someone who may be asymptomatic increases,” Interim Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez told reporters Friday.

In the East Valley School District, the quarantine has reduced staff to the point where it must move back to online learning only, at least through the end of the month.

“We’ve had a significant increase in staff members who have tested positive,” East Valley Superintendent Kelly Shea said Friday afternoon, after sending a letter to families informing them of the change.

The move to distance learning will begin on Monday and last for at least two weeks, Shea said.

“During this time, we will continue to monitor and evaluate our situation,” the letter continues. “When county COVID-19 cases improve and we are able to adequately staff for a safe and efficient operation of the district, we will then plan for a return to in-person instruction.”

Other districts were reporting record quarantine levels Friday, including almost 600 in Coeur d’Alene, 416 in Mead and 281 in Central Valley.

Spokane Public Schools also saw a spike, with 13 people testing positive this week and the number of people in quarantine more than doubling, from 109 to 192.

Hardest-hit was Lincoln Heights Elementary, with 41 quarantines. However, the district reported no in-school transmissions.

East Valley is the first district in Spokane to move back to distance learning in the face of the pandemic.

Out of about 550 employees at East Valley, 53 are now quarantined, with another 15 absent for other reasons.

That left principals “with a lot of moving parts to put an adult in each classroom,” Shea said.

Like some districts, East Valley began the year in a hybrid model at all grade levels, with students attending part of the week in person and other days remotely.

That had worked out well through October, with only three people testing positive. However, on Tuesday, the district noted a “pretty big spike” in cases, Shea said.

Out of a total enrollment of about 4,000 students, the district has 217 students currently quarantined, Shea said.

East Valley’s move isn’t the first in the area, however.

Facing worsening metrics in Kootenai County, the Coeur d’Alene School District moved one of its elementary schools, the Northwest Expedition Academy, to online only due to staffing shortages from quarantines.

Late Friday, the district did the same at Venture High School.

“We have reached a critical shortage among Venture’s faculty and do not foresee being able to cover all classes with subs next week,” the district said in a release.

Among other districts, Deer Park reported 20 positive tests and 103 people quarantined during the past 14 days. Cheney, Riverside and Nine Mile Falls reported 20 or fewer quarantined people.

Because districts use widely varying reporting models, it’s unclear how many people have tested positive or been quarantined in the two-county area.

For example, the Mead and Central Valley districts offer a daily report, broken down by student, staff and school, showing current cases and close contacts within the past 14 days.

Spokane posts a one-week snapshot, updated each Friday; however, it reflects only cases and quarantines from that week.

At Coeur d’Alene, the district notes how many individuals (62 as of Friday afternoon) are currently isolated after testing positive. However, it does not give current numbers for quarantine on its website; that information was obtained Friday afternoon from the district office.

Meanwhile, the Lakeland Joint School district, which employs the most open education model in the region – full in-person learning with masks optional – offers little information on COVID cases.

As of Friday, the district reported that 28 staff and 47 students have tested positive since Aug. 31. However, citing privacy concerns, the school board voted last month not to report the number of individuals under quarantine.

Velázquez said he and his staff are in almost daily contact with school superintendents as they adjust their plans to bring back lower grade levels or keep them virtual.

Hospital capacity, especially when it comes to staff, is a concern locally as case counts continue to surge in Spokane County.

On Friday, the Spokane Regional Health District recorded 191 total new cases and five more deaths due to the virus.

Velázquez said local hospitals have concerns about the number of COVID-19 patients and beds occupied by them, as well as having the necessary staff to take care of all the hospital patients.

Local hospitals are hovering at about 60 to 65% total capacity, said Susan Sjoberg, program manager at the health district. There are 83 COVID patients receiving treatment in Spokane hospitals, and 68 of them are Spokane County residents.

The Washington State Nurses Association, which represents nurses at local hospitals and the health district, released a statement on Friday calling on elected officials and hospital systems to address concerns about personal protective equipment, paid leave for sick nurses and timely testing.

“The Washington State Nurses Association shares the concerns voiced by public officials about the winter surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and what this could mean for our health care system,” a statement from the union said. “If we are to successfully confront this new surge and maintain staffing, it is critical that nurses and other health care workers are equipped and supported to continue providing care.”

Sjoberg said PPE levels in Spokane County are not of concern currently.

Staffing is, however, especially in the broader Inland Northwest region. Kootenai Health has had to hire 71 traveling nurses as of last week to help supplement the efforts of the hospital to treat everyone who needs to be in the hospital in addition to an overwhelming amount of COVID-19 patients.

The Panhandle Health District recorded 160 new cases of the virus Friday.

There are 52 patients hospitalized from the five-county Idaho Panhandle region, a record high during this pandemic.

“We’re already seeing a record number of hospitalized patients. This is the most we’ve seen thus far in the pandemic, so it’s a concerning number, for sure,” said Katherine Hoyer, public information officer at the Panhandle Health District.

The local rise mirrors a grim statewide trend.

On Friday, Washington state health officials confirmed a record number of daily cases since the pandemic began, with 2,147 new infections statewide.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued a travel advisory for interstate and international travelers to quarantine for 14 days when they arrive in Washington.

Velázquez said the health district team is following up with the Spokane International Airport to ensure they are able to follow this advisory.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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