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Updated: School board changes own Covid rules to allow older kids back Monday

The return to school for seventh- through 12th-grade Lake Roosevelt students on Monday, Dec. 7 continued under a plan modified in an emergency school board session Friday night that sets a much higher threshold for the number of local Covid cases it would take to stop in-person schooling.

The Grand Coulee Dam School District Board of Directors held an Emergency Board Meeting tonight via Zoom where they voted 4-1 to modify the plan, previously approved on Nov. 9, for junior/senior high students to return part time to physical school on Dec. 7. 

Kindergarten through sixth-grade students have already been going to in-person school part time since October.

The surge in COVID cases worldwide, including in local counties, was discussed during the meeting.

The plan approved in November included requiring an incidence rate of less than 75 COVID-19 cases per population of 100,000, which is the threshold set by the state and regional health authorities for in-person schooling to take place.

However, Superintendent Paul Turner told the board that, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Gov. Jay Inslee intends to raise that number to 200 but is getting resistance from the teachers’ union. 

Communications Consultant Ginny Streeter of the Washington State Department of Health told The Star in an email Monday that “the changes are still under review and we have no timeline on when/if those changes will go into effect.”

Streeter also mentioned that the metric is a guideline and not law. 

Inslee’s press secretary, Mike Faulk, said something similar, also in an email Monday: “The governor and DOH continue to have conversations with public health officials and medical professionals about the best way to [bring students back into the classroom] safely.”

“Most of our students need some in-person,” Turner asserted Friday night. He said school staff had worked hard to set up strict protocols to protect staff and students and concerns have been “minimal.” He asked the board to amend the plan to raise its high threshold number from 75 to 200.

“If 200 is the discussion point,” Turner said. “There must be some part of it that’s OK.”

Board Chairman George LaPlace said it would be better to wait for the state to change the rule before changing the district plan. And he asserted that the district had apparently not been in compliance with the board’s current policy for weeks as the rate has been over 75. He said the board should be considering shutting down in-person school altogether, for all students, not expanding it to higher grades.

“This is not the way we’re supposed to be managing this,” he said. “Now that [November’s plan is] not convenient, because it had teeth in it [in the 75 limit], now we’re trying to change it. I personally cannot support that.”

According to county health district websites, Okanogan County, where LR is located, had a COVID incidence rate of 234 per 100,000 population as of Dec. 4. Grant County had an incidence rate of 965, as of Dec. 3, with many LR students coming from those two counties. 

However, Turner presented data from Okanogan County Public Health that is more specific to the GCDSD, using numbers from local zip codes. He said that cumulatively the local COVID rate within the school district is at 134.

Jessica Kuzma, who does COVID communications for Okanogan Public Health, told The Star in an email on Monday that the local school district data is compiled monthly from the Washington Disease Reporting System from a database not everyone has access to. 

“This is the statewide system that tracks all testing done for COVID-19,” she explained. “All labs processing tests notify this system directly about positive, negative and total samples processed.”

Board members Ken Stanger and Rich Black expressed support for changing the metric from a COVID rate of 75 to 200 as the high mark for not having in-person school. 

Black said that he spoke with representatives from six other school districts in the area who are in the same situation and have reopened for between two and four days per week. He said they were happy with their decisions. 

“This is not an easy decision to make,” Black said. “There are people on both sides of the fence, very sincere people. It’s very personal for them. We’re making a decision that is a no-win decision. There will be people who won’t be satisfied, and I sympathize with those folks on either side. We need to make a decision to serve the best interest of most people we serve.”

Board members Alex Tufts and Carla Marconi expressed being on the fence on the issue, but ultimately voted in support of modifying the reopening plan with a new threshold of a local two-week incidence rate of 200 and keeping the start date for bringing back students in seventh grade and up under the same hybrid plan adopted in November, beginning Monday, Dec. 7.

LaPlace stood alone in voting against the change.

“I think we opened Pandora’s box,” he said. 

Turner told The Star last week that in the event of a local spike, the county health officer has authority to shut down the school district, and that he does as well, in consultation with the board.


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