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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Get the kids back in school

Pullman School District parents are a unique mix of advanced-degree academics, data-driven engineers and the ordinary diversity of any town and country population. It was also the only school district in Whitman County without an in-person option, outside of special education services, until kindergarten and first grade started back in hybrid mode on Jan. 4.

The debate over reopening has torn the community. One mother who declined to be named due to the divisiveness said her two teens are OK, but this is the first year they’ve just been OK and not thriving. “The light has gone out of their eyes and I don’t know how to turn it back on,” she said. Her daughter, who has never been a video gamer, now spends hours on her phone playing “Among Us,” an online game with friends. Normally, that much screen time would be a concern, but her parents decided hearing her laughing again is the priority right now.

There was an “all in this together” vibe until the school board declined to begin phased reopening in October. Over 30 parents, administrators and teachers signed up to speak at the Nov. 12 school board meeting.

Teacher Elizabeth Quinley spoke on behalf of six kindergarten and first-grade teachers at Sunnyside Elementary. Online teaching has been hard on the teachers, she said, but mostly “we are also fearful for our students” when “how to kill myself” turns up in their school search engine.

Todd Barbour has two sons in high school who moved to the district over the summer. Formerly honor society students as well as athletes, they were looking forward to meeting new people, but that’s nearly impossible in a virtual classroom.

“Elementary kids looking up suicide is scary as hell, but teenagers don’t have to look it up,” Barbour said. He follows the numbers showing low transmission risk for the under-18 population. “They’re struggling. It’s so damaging it’s hard for me to sleep at night.”

Erika Offerdahl is a scientist and a parent who favors reopening sooner rather than later. It bothers her when people say, “Follow the science,” as if one could pull “the science” guide off the shelf and look up the answer on Page 42. “That’s a dangerous message. It sets science up as a belief system rather than a way of learning about and understanding the world that is evidence-based. It’s a process.”

As a parent, she was puzzled by the school board’s rejection of a safe reopening plan last year prepared by a committee that included pediatricians, public health experts, teachers and community members. It wasn’t clear what data the school board was looking at to make its decisions. It’s hard to discern what data tells us and use data to determine risks, but it struck her as dismissive. “It’s very tricky because this is very emotional,” Offerdahl said.

Pullman parent and attorney Jenna Brozik filed a tort claim against the district on Dec. 4 for damages, representing 25 families “and increasing every day,” Brozik said. The claim points to the duty of the school board as elected officials to establish an educational environment designed to allow all students to attain their full potential. She believes that duty to the students was breached by not allowing some kind of in-person instruction as recommended by the Whitman County Health Department in October, the CDC and the governor and requested by the majority of the parents with students in the district.

“The damages are extensive,” Brozik said. “There are two suicide attempts that we know about in our district. Kids are depressed and failing out. The last thing my clients want to do is actually sue, but we haven’t had any response from the school board.” The district has 60 days from the date of the original filing to respond.

Superintendent Bob Maxwell, speaking on behalf of the school board, said the district was preparing information requested by the attorney under a public records request and then would be turning the matter over to its insurance carrier. Maxwell said the reopening plan would be on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting, and they will be considering the metrics for possible secondary school reopening. With the risks of living in a college town, “we’re taking a very structured approach,” Maxwell said.

Meanwhile, Pullman high schoolers watch their peers 9 miles away in the college town of Moscow enjoy in-person life with no higher risk, according to the data. And it’s depressing.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com

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