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Schools keep going despite COVID-19

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | November 23, 2020 1:00 AM

With Gov. Jay Inslee imposing a wave of new restrictions on social and commercial activity statewide in response to the rapid rise in new COVID-19 cases, there is one place the governor did not include in this latest round: schools.

And some think students should remain in class.

“Actually having people in schools is good, because they are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” said Ephrata School District Superintendent Tim Payne.

By that, Payne means that schools can and do maintain a tight control over mask wearing, physical distancing and cleaning. And because of that, he said, they don’t seem to be a center of contagion for the novel coronavirus pandemic right now.

“It comes to school, but it’s not spread at school,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean districts aren’t continuing to take precautions. The 50 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Moses Lake School District in the 14 days prior to last Friday are evenly spread between students and staff, with some reportedly linked to staff attending a large wedding near Ritzville on Nov. 7. It has prompted the closure of all three of the the MLSD’s middle schools for two weeks, as well as Sage Point Elementary, to ensure that instruction can continue even while teachers and students are quarantined.

“We must remain focused on strong preventative measures to practice good protocols, safe practices, and making sound choices,” wrote MLSD Superintendent Josh Meek, who along with his entire family tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago, in a statement last Thursday. “Our community, like many places, continues to struggle with this virus and our response. As a silent virus, nobody should assume anything.”

According to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the MLSD reported an enrollment of 7,966 students in November. Of those, 5,200 were receiving some kind of in-class instruction, according to the district’s website.

Most school districts in Grant County continue to have some kind of in-class instruction, mostly limited to students in younger grades. Royal School District, for example, slowly brought all K-5 students back to campus over a three week period beginning on Oct. 26.

According to Royal Superintendent Roger Trail, students in grades 6-12 continue to study online.

“We’re still going, and we continue to run classes as planned,” said Roger Trail, Superintendent of the Royal School District. “We have seen an increase in teachers coming down with COVID, but knock on wood, among our students, it’s low and fairly non-existent.”

“We’ve got no kids out because they tested positive in school,” he said.

According to OSPI data, the Royal School District reported an enrollment of 1,751 students in November. The Royal School District does not have a dashboard on its website reporting confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and staff or the number of students attending actual classes.

The Quincy School District also planned a gradual, phased return to campus, beginning with small groups (especially special education and students who had difficulty learning online) in October, K-3 on Nov. 9, and grades 4-5 on Dec. 1.

However, QSD Superintendent John Boyd said the youngest learners benefit the most from in-class instruction, and expansion of the QSD’s phased plan has been put on hold until COVID-19 infection rates in the district go down.

“We’re still planning to bring kids back in when the rates go down,” he said. “But the youngest learners and those with needs not being met can come into school and get some support.”

However, no plans were announced to bring students in grades 6-12 back to class before the rise in COVID-19 cases.

“We have not made any decisions on 6-12,” Boyd said. “We’re going to see how the spread of the disease goes.”

The QSD reported an average attendance of 3,035 for November, according to OSPI data, while the district’s website said 697 students were receiving some form of in-class instruction. The QSD also reported three confirmed COVID-19 cases for the prior 14 days, two students and one staff member, as of Friday.

According to the OSPI head count data for November, the QSD had 914 K-3 students enrolled in the district.

The Ephrata School District has limited in-class instruction to four days a week — Monday through Thursday — for K-6 students, who attend classes on a half-day schedule depending on their cohort, Payne said, with grades 7-12 remote learning.

“It’s as good as we can get it in a pandemic,” Payne said.

The Ephrata School district report enrollment of 2,514 students for November, while the district’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 1,298 students were on-campus as of Friday. The ESD also reported five confirmed COVID-19 cases in the district in 14 days, three among students and two among staff.

However, as safe as the schools themselves may be, Payne said, districts have little control over how students and employees behave outside class or on their own time.

“There are all kinds of people behaving badly, in all walks of life,” he said. “What people do on their own time affects school. But do I get to control that? No.”

“We do the best we can to control what we can control,” Payne added.