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Kindergartners to return soon at Spokane, Central Valley

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 23, 2020

Arcadia Elementary School students, social distance from each other as they line up outside the building on the first day of school, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in Deer Park, Wash.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Arcadia Elementary School students, social distance from each other as they line up outside the building on the first day of school, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in Deer Park, Wash. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Thousands of kindergartners will soon be back in class in Spokane County.

During board meetings held simultaneously Wednesday night, Spokane Public Schools and the Central Valley and West Valley districts announced that they will soon reopen doors that have been shut to students since March.

“We’re excited to have kids back into our schools,” said Spokane Superintendent Adam Swinyard, who expects to bring the district’s youngest students back into its 34 elementary buildings beginning Oct. 7.

The kindergartners will return in a hybrid fashion, probably twice a week.

Spokane and Central Valley will bring students back one grade at a time – beginning with kindergarten – with a minimum of two weeks between each new grade starting. Spokane will start with a rotating schedule for a short period and then kids will attend every day.

“We are excited to have in-person learning available for our young learners,” Central Valley Superintendent Ben Small said in a statement released after the CV school board approved the plan. “It’s so important for their mental and educational well-being.”

“While we are doing our part to help prevent community spread, we need collaboration with our families to make it happen,” Small added.

West Valley will probably follow a similar plan, Superintendent Kyle Rydell said.

The three districts have about 50,000 students overall and about 4,000 kindergartners. Except for a few special-needs students, all three began the year with distance-learning only.

That was in deference to guidance from Dr. Bob Lutz and Spokane Regional Health District, which in early August strongly recommended that students learn from home until COVID-19 infection rates and other metrics drop to acceptable levels.

“What we’ve heard from the health district is that it should be done slowly and methodically,” Swinyard said.

The need for caution was underscored this week, as positive test rates have steadily increased since Labor Day. On Wednesday, Spokane County reported 123 new cases, the highest number since Aug. 6.

That pushed a key metric – the 14-day rolling average of new cases per 100,000 – up to 110.6. That’s well above the benchmark of 75 Lutz established on Aug. 3.

However, Lutz said Wednesday afternoon that he now supports the return of kindergartners through second-graders for in-person instruction.

“We’re watching the data closely, and although our county remains in the high range, we feel confident in the plans these school districts have developed for a safe return to in-person learning,” Lutz said.

Swinyard said this week that while Spokane would attempt to transition kids back to classrooms as soon as possible, “we’ve consistently said that we’re going to follow the guidance of public health offices.”

Spokane and Central Valley did just that on Aug. 3, the day Lutz gave his recommendations. Since then, local infection rates have steadily declined before rising again since Labor Day.

For the last few weeks, superintendents in Spokane County have been in constant contact with Lutz.

“We met earlier this week,” Rydell said.

However, there are no guarantees against a spike in coronavirus cases, which would pause or even push back the move back to classrooms.

“The health district warned us that a retreat was possible,” Rydell said.

Earlier this month, Lutz said the county needs to “demonstrate that it is trending downward” for three to four weeks before he would recommend a change.

“None of us feels comfortable pivoting too quickly,” Lutz said.

However, Lutz acknowledged “our guidance for opening schools has been a balancing act.”

“On one hand we are ensuring the health and well-being of our community, and on the other we have to care for the mental wellness and address academic disparities among students – especially for our youngest learners,” Lutz said.

Spokane Public Schools dropped a hint in a letter sent to staff Wednesday morning.

“A slow process that begins with the youngest grades has been the central theme of all conversations,” it said.

The letter closed by promising that “in tonight’s School Board meeting, district leadership will provide an update on phasing discussions and recommendations for moving forward based on the COVID-19 conditions in Spokane County.

“This conversation will be focused on kindergarten.”

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