If there is one certainty about deciding how or if to open schools to students in the midst of a pandemic, it is this: Nothing is certain. The experience of the Peninsula School District has been no exception. “Things are so fluid and so dynamic. We have never done this before and neither has anyone else. We are trying to be nimble,” said Assistant Superintendent Dan Gregory.
Within one week in October, as COVID-19 infection rates rose, so did confusion. Plans to cancel K-1 in-person classes were announced and then reversed; plans to expand in-person classes for second graders were put on hold. After a few days of dueling press releases, PSD and the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department announced that PSD will participate in a pilot program designed to use coronavirus testing as a tool to allow safe reopening.
PSD opened its doors to kindergartners and first graders Sept. 28 — the only district in Pierce County other than Eatonville to do so. COVID-19 infection rates were below the state-defined moderate level of 25 to 75 new cases per 100,000 averaged over two weeks. There were no outbreaks associated with the in-person classes.
Then, as had been predicted by public health professionals across the nation, the infection rate rose in October and November — at press time it was over 200 and rising in Pierce County and was above 200 in Kitsap County. Eatonville resumed distance learning and other districts, including White River in Pierce County and South and Central Kitsap, delayed plans to welcome students back to the buildings.
At the PSD board meeting Oct. 22, Superintendent Art Jarvis and board members debated the merits of guidance from TPCHD on returning to virtual classes. Gregory said the thought of sending K-1 students home, given the success of the experience for both teachers and students, was especially painful. Jarvis noted that the department’s decision was based on trying to keep people safe, but board members took a more strident tone. Vice President David Olson said, “I honestly don’t think (TPCHD Director Anthony Chen) cares. It’s his way or the highway.” Board President Deborah Krishnadasan gave out Chen’s phone number and encouraged parents to lobby him directly.
Chen used his authority in August to require all schools to open using distance learning based on the TPCHD assessment that opening to in-person learning posed a public health threat. But he explicitly informed school leaders later that final decisions about opening classrooms were for them to make.
In a public statement, TPCHD said, “We continue to closely watch the case rate and other metrics to determine our school recommendations. The school districts and private schools will make the final decision. They do not need a waiver, variance or written permission.”
TPCHD announced a pilot coronavirus testing program Oct. 28 to allow smaller rural school districts to continue their reopening plans. The $7.8 million pilot is funded by a Pierce County grant from federal CARES Act funding. Testing will not replace masks, distancing and hand washing, which have proven to be critical in infection control.
“We hope this project will help keep students and staff safer when schools make the decision to reopen — and reduce the overall spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Rural areas can face greater challenges in accessing testing but are well suited for this pilot,” Chen said.
Much is yet to be determined about the pilot — who gets tested, how often, which tests are used and where they are done — and the pilots will be tailored to each district. Dale Phelps, TPCHD COVID-19 communications supervisor, said they hope it will be operational this calendar year. Gregory said that PSD has created a stakeholders task force with parents, certificated and non-certificated staff, and principals and is serving as a conduit to ensure that the stakeholders and the TPCHD understand each other’s goals and concerns.
“Our primary goal is to provide the best learning experience while keeping students and staff safe,” Gregory said. “Although liability must always be considered as decisions are made, it does not drive decisions.”
At least 100 school superintendents across the state, representing 40 percent of the districts, asked Gov. Jay Inslee to sign an executive order protecting them from COVID-related lawsuits. PSD is not a part of that group.
At press time one person at Purdy Elementary tested positive (because of privacy issues Gregory could not disclose whether it was a staff member or a student). It was determined that the infection source was not at Purdy and there were no further cases at the school. He reported a similar outcome with cases earlier identified at Peninsula High School. PSD has added a dashboard with an infection report to its website.
There is growing evidence that children 10 and under are less vulnerable to serious COVID-19 infections and are less likely to spread disease to others. A study from the Washington State Department of Health indicated that schools opening in regions with moderate infection rates and following guidelines that include masks, social distancing and hand washing can do so safely.
At a recent news conference Lacy Fehrenbach, Washington State deputy secretary of health for COVID-19 response, said that infection rates for school staff reflect the rates in the community, but that they are lower for children. The state continues to evaluate data, including looking at thresholds that will inform future recommendations.
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