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State loosens school Covid guidelines

In-person school is being encouraged by the state, but Lake Roosevelt is limited on space to keep a safe distance between students and staff.

The guidelines for when to open schools to in-person learning were loosened up by Gov. Jay Inslee last week, citing data showing schools as being relatively safe during the COVID pandemic when they’re careful to follow safety protocols. 

The Washington State Department of Health and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction worked with the governor on the decision.

Guidelines from the state previously discouraged in-person schooling in areas with a COVID incidence rate higher than 75 cases per 100,000 residents.

Inslee, in a press conference on Dec. 17, raised that metric to 350, emphasizing that the metric is a guideline and not a law.

Citing  studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Brown University, as well as by researchers in Washington, Inslee said that elementary schools have been shown to be successful in limiting transmission of COVID when safety protocols are followed.

Those safety protocols include screening for symptoms, wearing masks, having good ventilation, and students and staff maintaining a safe distance of 6 feet apart from one another.

He called the data showing low transmission “good news for parents and students whose lives have been disrupted,” adding that “many people’s lives revolve around a regular school schedule to promote healthy childhood development.” 

Dept. of Health experts in the press conference noted that older students, however, tend to act more like adults in the general population, with some following guidelines and some not, making their in-school participation riskier.

The new guidelines say that with an incidence rate of less than 50, in-person learning should be available for all students; with a rate of 50-350, districts are encouraged to phase in students to in-person learning, beginning with the youngest and highest-needs students first. With a rate higher than 350, only small groups are encouraged to go to school at a time.

Rates in most surrounding counties are ranging higher, with county health authorities reporting rates from 155 in Lincoln County to nearly 1,000 in Grant County.

Grand Coulee Dam School District Superintendent Paul Turner said Monday that Inslee’s press conference “was a verification of what we’re doing, that we’re on the right track.” 

Some Lake Roosevelt Elementary students have been doing some level of in-person learning since October, and some junior/senior high students started going one day per week just prior to their winter break.

The current aim is for those junior/senior high students to start going to in-person school two days a week in February, adding days later on.

But space is an issue, Turner said.

In trying to keep students and staff 6 feet apart, there simply isn’t the room to bring everyone back more days at this point.

“We’d love to get them back sooner,” Turner said, “but we don’t have the room to put them in the classroom,” adding that if distance restrictions eased up, more students would fit inside the school.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association said in a statement that “while sports and activities were not covered during the announcement, the WIAA is hopeful that guidelines for extracurricular participation will also be revised to align with the data and information that was presented today.” 


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