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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

St. Maries schools go remote after massive COVID-19-related absences

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19.  (HOGP)

Faced with soaring student and staff absences related to COVID-19, the St. Maries School District in North Idaho announced a move to remote learning on Tuesday.

“This is not sustainable,” Superintendent Alica Holthaus said Tuesday, one day after 30% of students and 20% of staff called in sick.

While not officially tied to COVID – the district does not post numbers on its website – “we assume it’s COVID,” Holthaus said.

The district of about 1,000 students announced the decision Tuesday morning: “After consultation with our local health care providers, all schools in the District will switch to remote learning on Wednesday, Sept. 22.”

The district also will cancel all athletic events and practices, but will resume distribution of grab-and-go meals on Thursday. Distance Learning Packets will go out beginning Monday.

A tentative return to face-to-face instruction has been set for Oct. 11, pending approval by the board of directors at its next scheduled meeting on Oct. 4.

Like most districts in the state, St. Maries opened the year on Sept. 8 with full in-person instruction, masks optional and no major modification, according to Holthaus.

It’s unclear when the COVID rates spiked. Because of privacy concerns related to its small size, the district doesn’t post a dashboard, Holthaus said.

St. Maries, a town of about 2,400, is the county seat of Benewah County (population 9,300), which has seen a spike in COVID cases. On Monday, the county recorded eight new cases and two deaths.

St. Maries isn’t alone. With no statewide mask mandate, many districts are not requiring masks in their schools either. Cases are climbing as a result in teens and younger children.

“We hit new records for the current outbreak in all age groups under 18 last week,” Dr. Kathryn Turner, the deputy state epidemiologist, said on Tuesday. “Case rates continue to climb.”

More than 1,400 children from ages 5 to 17 tested positive in the most recent week for which data was available.

Tuesday’s announcement in St. Maries wasn’t a complete surprise. On Sunday, the district went on Facebook with an acknowledgment of rising student and staff illnesses.

“Increased absences may cause a school closure,” it warned. The district also urged parents to check their children’s health every day before school and keep them home if they are sick.

Thirty-six hours later came the announcement of a retreat to remote learning.

“We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience that this closure causes, but we must put the health of our students, staff, and community first,” the district said in a statement.

It continued: “Closed schools hurt for our community, our local businesses, and most importantly our children,” the district said in its statement. “It will take the efforts of the entire community to slow the spread.”

Holthaus was hopeful that would happen.

“This town has a habit of coming together in times of need,” she said. “And this is a time of need.”

Rising COVID-19 metrics have also forced a move to remote learning at Othello High School in central Washington.

In a statement online, the Othello School District said that more than 200 high school students are in quarantine.

Students began distance learning on Tuesday and will do so through Oct. 1.

Staff writer Arielle Dreher contributed to this report.