Health department recommends local school districts start remotely

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The Blaine school district will hold a special meeting on Saturday, August 8 to decide if it will revise its hybrid plan for the school year. This follows an August 4 recommendation from the Whatcom County Health Department asking schools to start the school year with remote learning.

The Blaine school district discussed the recent recommendations at an August 5 special school board meeting but pushed the decision to August 8, so they could hear public opinion at a community Q&A that was already scheduled for August 6 at 6 p.m.

Whatcom County health officer Dr. Greg Stern made the recommendation on August 4 to county superintendents and private school administrators, according to a press release from the county health department.

“I do not feel it is safe to open schools in September for traditional classroom learning,” Stern said in the press release. “I expect that our current infection rate and its ongoing increase will not slow or reverse enough to allow for safe operations in the fall. Given this, and the lead time needed to prepare for school operations, I strongly recommend schools prepare for remote learning to start the school year.”

In his decision, Stern considered the potential impact reopening schools could have on the continuing increase of Covid-19 cases in the county, according to the release. The risk for staff and students with underlying medical conditions also impacted the decision.

Governor Jay Inslee strongly recommended guidelines for reopening schools this fall in an August 5 conference with Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. The recommendations – not legal requirements – follow the “decision tree” framework released on August 5 by the Washington State Department of Health that categorizes counties in low, medium and high risk based on their Covid-19 levels.

Counties with high levels of Covid-19, which the department of health defines as 75 cases per 100,000 people in 14 days, are asked to do distance learning with limited in-person learning in small groups with the highest needs, such as young children and students with disabilities. Counties with moderate levels of Covid-19, defined as 25-75 cases per 100,000, are asked to follow the same guidelines with possibility of in-person learning for elementary school students. These counties could add a hybrid model for middle and high school if Covid-19 cases do not spike through the schools. Counties with low levels of Covid-19 are recommended to do full-time in-person classes for elementary students and hybrid learning for middle and high school, with the possibility of fulltime in-person learning for the upper grade levels.

During the August 5 Blaine school board special meeting, Blaine school district superintendent Christopher Granger recommended starting the school year remotely and then phasing students into the building, starting with students in special education programs and students without internet first. Students would then transition into the schools by grade level with the youngest children beginning first.

At the absolute latest, the school district will need a finalized plan with signatures from the school board by the evening of Monday, August 10 for Granger to send to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction by August 12.

Granger has repeatedly said during meetings this summer that the school district will prepare for starting the year with remote learning, despite its current plan for families to choose either a hybrid model of learning or online classes.

Lisa Moeller, school district public relations specialist, said she believes the district will be prepared to start the year remotely, if needed, because that was already an option for families.

Erika Lautenbach, Whatcom County Health Department director, acknowledged and thanked the school districts in the county that worked this summer to plan for reopening in the fall.

Health officials in Snohomish and Pierce counties have issued similar guidance, according to the release.

As of August 4, Whatcom County had 957 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 38 deaths, according to data from the Washington State Department of Health. Washington state had 60,084 cases and 1,624 deaths, according to state health data.

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