COVID-19 Spike Forces PSD Back to Remote Learning, Closing Classrooms Again

Update: This is a developing story. As Pierce County cases surged, most students were set to leave the classroom Nov. 2. PSD cancelled that plan Oct. 28 and now intends to bring second graders back Nov. 12 with a new COVID-19 rapid testing regime. Updates to follow.

Vaughn Elementary kindergartner Hanna Forseth walks to class Oct.
16.
Vaughn Elementary kindergartner Hanna Forseth walks to class Oct. 16. Kamryn Minch, KP News
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The Peninsula School District plan to invite more students back to in-person learning in November stalled Oct. 23 when, in response to record-setting COVID-19 infections in the county, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department advised schools to cease classroom instruction.

The last day of in-person classes will be Monday, Nov. 2.

PSD welcomed kindergartners and first graders back to classrooms Sept. 28 and intended to invite second graders to return Nov. 5. Then the county infection rate hit a record Oct. 23 with 139 cases in a single day, 20 cases higher than the peak of the second wave in July, prompting the recommendation.

In an Oct. 22 letter to Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, Dr. Anthony Chen, director of health of TPCHD, clarified its policy, writing “We will continue to closely watch the case rate and other metrics to determine when to issue our recommendation that schools stop in-person learning, but the school district or private schools will make the final decision.”

“Our kindergarten and first grade children are thriving in school in person, and we have avoided any spikes in cases locally,” PSD Superintendent Art Jarvis told KP News before the new recommendation was issued.

“Although Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula area cases are lower than Pierce County’s, TPCHD has local control over the county as a whole and will not make exceptions for specific areas within the county,” Jarvis said in a statement Oct. 23.

In his Oct. 22 letter, Chen also said “No school is an island and variations based on local, district-specific measures are only meaningful if parents stop commuting out and workers and visitors are barred from entering… Our position, consistent with the Governor’s Safe Start plan, is restrictions apply countywide based on countywide disease activity level.”

The county 14-day case rate was 102 per 100,000 at that time, according to TPCHD, well above the “moderate risk” level of 75 and far beyond the target of under 25.

“We have gotten strong and very passionate opinions from both sides,” PSD Board President Deborah Krishnadasan told the KP News. She said that PSD was one of the first school districts in Pierce County to offer in-person teaching and that other districts, hoping to open in November, had come to learn from PSD.

“While we have seen Pierce County’s numbers rise, our local area case numbers remain significantly lower,” Krishnadasan said. “The board supports the district’s plan to follow the Department of Health decision tree guidance…while exercising caution in bringing our students back slowly.”

“I have not been able to work because I have to stay home and take care of the kids now,” said Lakebay resident Renée Harding, who has second-, third- and fifth-graders attending Evergreen Elementary School online. “I have friends where both parents are working and they are struggling. They just don’t think it’s fair that you can go to Target and Costco and go to restaurants, but our children can’t go back to school.

“I just don’t like that this whole thing has affected kids so much,” she said. “They understand, but they don’t. People want to go back to school, but they’re angry at school. We’re supposed to wear masks, but there are anti-mask people. They just don’t know how to process it.”

Shelby Johnston has a first-grader at Evergreen who was grateful to be back in school.

“My daughter is really upset because she’s the kind of kid who really thrives on in-class teaching,” Johnston said. “When school closed in March, she turned into a totally different kid. She was very upset, very moody, not wanting to do school work or anything.

“I’m the Evergreen PTA president, so I see both sides,” she said. “I don’t really know who to be upset with. I understand the district is caught in the middle, I just wish they would make a decision and stick with it.”

“We found out how complicated it is and how many layers there are,” said Marci Cummings-Cohoe, a Vaughn Elementary School second grade teacher and union representative who is working on the next phase of reopening. “It’s not just teachers and students and parents. It’s the lunch ladies, the bus drivers, the paraeducators. It’s how to set up rooms to keep everyone safe.”

With distancing guidelines, classroom size is limited to 15. Typical K-1 classrooms have about 23 students. Because some families decided to continue with remote learning and others declined to enroll, most elementary schools were able to accommodate students who wanted to attend in person. In the future, if more students want to return and distancing guidelines remain as they are, that may be a challenge.

Enrollment in all public schools in Washington is down 2.8% this year; Pierce County’s overall enrollment decreased by about the same amount. Kindergarten numbers account for about a third of the decrease, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

PSD enrollment is down by 7% or 700 students this year, more than double the state and county average. Krishnadasan said that the decrease in kindergarten enrollment and an increase in the number of high school students enrolled in Running Start accounts for the majority of the loss, which will lead to about $7 million less in state funding.

Read the TPCHD recommendation at https://www.tpchd.org/healthy-people/diseases/covid-19-information-for-schools

Read the TPCHD clarification of its role at https://www.tpchd.org/Home/Components/News/News/200/286