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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

One year later, Spokane Public Schools families again ponder pandemic back-to-school scenarios

Mohamad Abdelrahman, left, Keith Sison, center rear, Mick Vergine and Melinda Norman, of Dorian Studio, produce masks for schools, Thursday, July 3vw0, 2020, in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

One year later, little has changed for stakeholders at Spokane Public Schools.

Three weeks before classes begin, families, teachers and school officials are enduring another angst-filled August and the prospect of a third consecutive year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m frustrated for our students and families, but that’s the reality we live in right now,” school board President Jerrall Haynes said Tuesday.

On Wednesday night, Haynes and other board members will get an update on back-to-school plans that will affect about 30,000 students.

As mandated by Gov. Jay Inlsee, students and teachers will be required to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status. However, they won’t be required to turn in daily attestations, and in-person instruction is planned for every child who desires it.

“I still think that we’re ahead of where we were last August,” Haynes said. “With the new guidance, they’ve relaxed some of the rules.”

However, there are no guarantees, especially as the delta variant is spreading.

“I think one thing we’ve learned through the pandemic is that it’s unpredictable,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said. “But currently our plan is returning kids to full-time in-person learning.”

That’s not enough for some.

Open Spokane Schools, a parent group formed last summer, plans to hold a rally prior to Wednesday’s meeting. Several will speak during the meeting.

One of the group’s organizers, Russell Neff of Spokane, said he and his middle school-age daughter have endured enough.

Midway through last year, her grades slipped during remote learning. Things didn’t improve after the move to a hybrid schedule, partly because of the mask requirement.

“She told me ‘they’re taking away my face, and I’m struggling to see if I’m on track,’ ” Neff said.

“Most communication isn’t verbal,” said Neff, a former substitute teacher in the district who believes that parents should decide whether their children should wear masks. Two school board candidates, Daryl Geffken and Kata Dean, agree.

Swinyard acknowledged their frustrations.

“We know that seeing facial expressions is important for kids’ interactions,” Swinyard said. “But I think our teachers did an incredible job, communicating in different ways.”

The anti-mask protest may be moot. Inslee is allowing no local discretion, as he did last year when some districts, notably Mead, opted to begin the year with cohorts.

Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent, bolstered that point by threatening to cut off funding for any district that defies the mask mandate.

“He was crystal clear on that,” Swinyard said. “And that’s how we turn on the lights and pay our teachers.”

Swinyard pledged to carry on the cautious approach of last year, following guidelines set by state and local health authorities.

“Our stance has been very consistent, we have not once wavered from that,” Swinyard said. “That’s the most appropriate way to approach this.”

Despite the uncertainties, nearly every parent and guardian plans on seeing their children back in classes this fall. The district is again offering the Spokane Virtual Academy for those who wish to learn remotely all year.

However, when registration closed on Sunday, only 300 students – or 1% districtwide – were committed to SVA.

“That was less than we anticipated,” Swinyard said.

Moving forward, the district is still finalizing plans for the other 99%.

At this point, students may remove their masks while eating, as well as outdoors. Also, according to language in the current plan, “While schools should continue to … promote social distancing, it cannot be a reason to limit in-person instruction.”

Guidelines for lunch services, performing arts and athletics are still being evaluated. Contact tracing and testing will be available.