“Kids need to be in school. That’s the message from the Secretary of Education all the way down, so that’s my message as well,” said Mt. Adams School District Superintendent Curt Guaglianone. “We’re going to do everything we could do to keep kids in school.”
Yakima health officials urge masks, vaccines as COVID cases skyrocket, hospitalizations rise
A large-scale closure of school districts, similar to what happened in March 2020, is incompatible with guidance from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Under the current instructional funding model, schools must offer in-person classes, but may also offer remote instruction, according to OSPI documents.
“The in-person learning environment is the best environment for most students, and it is our continued expectation that schools provide all students with the opportunity to learn in-person full-time,” OSPI spokesperson Katy Payne said in an email.
Smaller closures of a classroom or a school building can be made by school district leaders or officials from the local health authority, Payne said.
Closures can happen due to a high number of COVID cases or issues with adequate staffing.
“Our threshold for closing a classroom would be the inability to find teacher coverage, either through substitutes, other teaching staff, or administrators,” Sunnyside School District Interim Superintendent Heidi Hellner-Gomez said in a statement. “This has not happened at any of our schools since students returned to in-person learning.”
Yakima County COVID cases are on the rise. There were 290 new cases reported in Yakima County on Wednesday with 25 people in local hospitals due to COVID, according to data from the Yakima Health District. That’s up from mid- and late December. On Dec. 29, there were 144 new cases.
One in four people who are tested for COVID-19 at the Yakima Valley College testing site are positive for the virus, site manager Michael Vachon told the Yakima Herald-Republic earlier this week. During the late summer COVID surge, that rate was closer to one in five.
Between August through December 2021, there were 19 classroom closures in Yakima Valley schools, according to Yakima County Health District spokesperson Stephanie Badillo-Sanchez.
She said that the decision to close a classroom for COVID-related reasons is ultimately up to the districts. The health district does not order classrooms to close.
“Each school district has that privilege to choose on their own in the instances of closures,” Badillo-Sanchez said. “And we are there to support that closure if they ask or provide any information and education and just support them overall through that process.”
Yakima School District spokesperson Kirsten Fitterer said in an email that the district confers with the local health authorities before closing a classroom. The district of 16,000 students had five classroom closures last semester.
Districts are encouraged to use technology to give students access to learning materials during a quarantine, according to OSPI documents.
More cases among younger students
The health district is in constant communication with school officials, Badillo-Sanchez said.
It tracks the number of COVID cases in students and school personnel. From August through December 2021, there were 1,324 cases of COVID recorded among students and school employees, according to health district data. Of those, 37 were cases where the person was exposed to COVID at school.
Badillo-Sanchez said that the low in-school transmission rate is due to the combined efforts of multiple COVID safety requirements in place at schools, like mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent disinfecting.
Cases were more common among kids in lower grades, she said. About 40% of COVID cases among students during that two-week period were in kids in kindergarten through fifth grade.
The health district maintains an online list where parents can find places to get their children the pediatric COVID vaccine. Some school districts also offer occasional vaccination clinics.
Youth ages 12 and older are now eligible and encouraged to receive a booster shot, the state Department of Health said Thursday. People must wait at least five months after receiving their second Pfizer COVID vaccination shot before getting a booster.
On Wednesday Gov. Jay Inslee announced an expansion of at-home testing efforts. The state DOH ordered 5.5. million at-home tests with 4.7 million expected to arrive next week, according to the governor’s office. Schools across the state will receive 1 million tests.
The state also plans to give out 10 million free masks, with K-12 schools playing a key part in the distribution, according to the governor’s office.
“Over the coming months, some classrooms may have to close,” Inslee said during a Wednesday news conference. “We will have to soldier through some frustrations, and I believe we will do that successfully. That is why we are focused heavily on making sure tests, masks, and vaccines are readily available for our school staff and students.”
Badillo-Sanchez said that the entire community plays a role in keeping COVID transmission down to keep the virus out of schools.
“And now with the increased rise of the omicron variant, it’s definitely important to get vaccinated, get your booster dose, and also combine it with those preventative measures, such as wearing your mask, social distancing and even the basics like washing your hands,” she said.