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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

School leaders struggle to keep doors open as absences mount among students and staff

Mead High School students wait to enter the building in a socially distanced line on the first day of school on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020 in Spokane, Wash.   (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Soaring COVID-19 numbers are forcing local school districts into some difficult situations, including temporary closure of buildings.

That happened Monday in the East Valley School District, where high COVID-19 cases and staff shortages left more than 4,000 students at home.

“It’s a real fragile situation,” Superintendent Brian Talbott said Monday as he discussed the factors that went into a “very tough decision.”

“Safety has to be first,” said Talbott, who noted the district on Friday had 81 positive cases, among them 30 staff members.

“I believe we made the best decision with lousy circumstances,” Talbott said.

School will be back in session Tuesday, the district said in a letter sent to families Monday afternoon.

“However, I can’t guarantee that the buses are going to be on time,” Talbott said.

Meanwhile, other districts are trying to stave off a similar fate a few days after State Superintendent Chris Reykdal warned of that very scenario.

“It is our No. 1 priority to keep school in-person,” Reykdal said during a news conference Friday, “Although we’re really challenged with omicron.”

Nearly every district is seeing rising COVID cases. In the Mead School District, numbers posted Monday showed 375 confirmed cases among students and staff. However, that number included cases confirmed during winter break.

“We are seeing a higher number of staff absences and are utilizing available substitutes,” said Todd Zeidler, the district’s director of communications. “We also utilize other certificated staff, including principals and district personnel to cover classrooms in both elementary and secondary schools where needed.”

In Freeman, Superintendent Randy Russell said that higher COVID numbers among staff have forced the district to assess how to keep the doors open.

At West Valley, COVID cases topped 100 at one point last week.

West Valley School District is “doing OK,” Superintendent Kyle Rydell said. “We have some unfilled positions, including in nutrition services and other areas.”

However, on Monday, the West Valley nutrition staff rose to the challenge when some buildings were short-staffed and pulled employees from other buildings.

“Our team has done a good job of monitoring,” Rydell said.

However, COVID numbers continue to soar after the holiday break.

At Medical Lake High School, the boys and girls varsity basketball teams were forced to postpone games last weekend and this week because of positive cases.

“It’s been pretty interesting today,” said Tim Ames, superintendent at Medical Lake as he expected to see an increase over Friday’s total of 45 cases in the previous 14 days.

Regarding staffing, Ames said “We’re doing OK. As far as not filling the (teaching) gaps, we’re getting to that point but we’re not there yet.”

“Our plan is to keep bringing healthy people to class,” Ames said.

In Coeur d’Alene Public Schools on Monday, about 90 of the roughly 600 teachers were absent for a variety of reasons.

“Of those, we were able to fill 64 with substitute teachers,” said Scott Maben, the district’s director of communications. “That’s a 74% fill rate, which is not great. It’s the second lowest sub fill rate since Nov. 17.”

At West Valley, Rydell said the district “just needs to keep working together. We need to do what we can to move forward and help support our students.”

That also was the goal at East Valley as it weighed the decision on Monday classes. However, staff shortages, particularly in transportation and food services, dictated forced the closure.

“It was the district’s inability to transport kids and feed them – that was the reason we closed down,” Talbott said.

Unfortunately, the one-day closure offered no chance to pivot to remote learning – another issue other districts will need to consider if they are caught in a similar situation.

Because no lessons were taught, the day must be made up later this year.