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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Some Eastern Washington school districts want relaxed social-distancing standards

Mead High School students wait to enter the building in a socially distanced line on the first day of school on Sept. 21.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Superintendents from 32 districts in Eastern Washington petitioned the state this week to take a closer look at relaxing social-distancing rules for students in school.

Current rules requiring 6 feet of distance are unrealistic, especially for secondary students, the letter says.

“We believe that we have substantively been successful in bringing increasing numbers of students and staff into school, while minimizing in-school transmission of the virus,” said the letter, which was conveyed by the NorthEast Washington Educational Service District 101 to Gov. Jay Inslee and state health secretary Dr. Umair Shah.

“What we have found is that, of those 200,000 students doing on-site learning, there has been minimal in-school transmission either between students or between students and staff,” the letter continued.

It also cited only 87 documented instances of in-school transmission out of those 200,000 students.

“This is a remarkably low rate of transmission and the median number of people involved is two,” the letter said. “Respectfully, we request that some defined flexibility with physical distancing requirements be provided,” the letter stated.

However, the letter was not backed by many of the region’s larger districts, including Spokane Public Schools and Central Valley, Cheney, East Valley and West Valley.

“District representatives have been continuously engaged with public health officials regarding the reopening of schools and next steps as we transition to a more typical in person experience,” district spokeswoman Sandra Jarrard said Thursday in a statement.

“These conversations have included the current 6-foot distancing requirement and when that may be modified or rescinded,” Jarrard added. “We continue to look forward to updates and revisions of the reopening guidelines based on the most current data and science that is available to public health officials.”

The superintendents’ letter doesn’t mention a timeline for reducing the distance to 3 feet, though it implies a desire to make the change as soon as possible.

“As we contemplate planning for the balance of the 2020-21 school year, and importantly as we turn our attention to the 2021-22 school year, we write today to request needed consideration for some flexibility,” the letter states.

Mead Superintendent Shawn Woodward said the petition is intended to “to get the conversation going” for next year.

“We’re really fearful that (6-foot distancing) would still be in place in September, and we want the conversation to happen sooner rather than later.”

Mead began the school year with full in-person learning for kindergarten through grade 5. Because those grades have smaller class sizes, the 6-foot standard has been easy to meet.

However, that isn’t possible for upper grades, Woodward said.

Grades 6-12 remain on a hybrid schedule.

Woodward noted that the district’s first priority “was to push for school staff to get the eligibility to get vaccinated.”

“But now that widespread vaccination is available, it opens the door for the conversation” to reduce the 6-foot standard, Woodward said.

The letter was signed by superintendents from nine districts in Spokane County: Deer Park, Freeman, Great Northern, Liberty, Mead, Medical Lake, Nine Mile Falls, Orchard Prairie and Riverside.