Health department, school officials planning re-opening
August 6, 2020
For several months, staff at Wahkiakum Health and Human Services have been working quietly alongside Wahkiakum School District as they grapple with all the complex issues involved in starting the new school year in the midst of a pandemic, and for that, Superintendent Brent Freeman is grateful.
“I think we are all in agreement that we want to get the kids back in school, but we are also in agreement that we need to do it under safe and practical health practices, and that makes it really complicated,” Freeman said. “I appreciate the help and support the health department has been to us. They have been a daily asset to us, as far as bouncing ideas off them, validating equipment and processes, and helping us develop processes. I would say Wahkiakum is in one of the best states you could be as far as the close relationship between the district and health department. It allows us to knock stuff off and move forward quicker than others.”
That being said, the district is not ready to share their plan, though the scheduled start date is August 31. They are still in the process of getting it approved by OSPI, while they continue to discuss and implement new procedures.
Every detail must be considered, every possible scenario explored, while any plan potentially sits on shifting sand.
The easy part may be incorporating the procedures and products that keep the facilities cleaned and sanitized for students, teachers, staff, and administration. But the high school alone is an aging structure, and some of its own problems have to be considered, including its lean halls, which are not ideal when six feet is required for social distancing.
That is only one example, but Wahkiakum, like any other school district, not only has to answer to universal questions brought up by the pandemic, it also has its own unique problems to solve.
Equipment has been ordered. Infrared thermometers have arrived, and extra hand washing sinks are on the way. PPE was ordered months ago.
“Every person that comes in to the school has to wear a mask, Freeman said. “We are screening for symptoms, and keeping a daily record of that.”
“We’re still working through all the minutiae,” Freeman said. “We want to have high confidence that we have all the measures in place and we’re not going to have a covid-19 outbreak here.”
“There is always some risk involved, but we’re trying to keep the risk pretty low,” Wahkiakum Health and Human Services Director Chris Bischoff said. “On our side, the chief part of it is how do we keep kids from getting sick? Can we do this in a way that accomplishes that mission, understanding that for many kids, especially the younger kids, that distance education is sub-optimal at least?”
While remote learning is not the district’s first choice, the option cannot be taken off the table. The district not only has to figure out the safest ways to bring students back to school, they must also be prepared to provide an education for students at home. Perhaps doing both simultaneously.
And they have to do it in a county that is underserved when it comes to internet access.
“If we go back to school, the likelihood that we have a case pop up is pretty high, so how do we structure in-person school so we have that impact be as small as possible and affect as few kids as possible?” Bischoff said.
They’ve been talking about cohorts. They are debating cohort size, whether they should be five or 15, or somewhere in between. Kids in one cohort would not socialize with kids in another cohort.
“We need a further definition of what a cohort is,” Freeman said, “as well as consider what are the procedures that keep those kids in those established cohorts.”
“That helps the health department out, because if you imagine the average high school day pre-covid-19, and one kid shows up with covid-19, contact tracing becomes impossible,” Bischoff said. “That’s why we saw early on, if one kid becomes positive, they just shut the school down. In reality, there is no other way to do that. The idea with cohorts is to avoid shutting down the whole school if someone falls ill by limiting the number
of people each student comes in contact with.”
Bischoff pointed out that this also means that parents have to buy in.
“If you throw all those kids back in the school, we are going to start that spread up at a much faster rate, we know that’s a fact, and we’re just going to go back into closed again,” he said. “Not only is Brent going to have to make sure those kids wear their masks, but when they get home, their parents or guardians will have needed to be equally responsible during their day, wearing their masks when they go to work, shopping, socializing. It’s going to be the responsibility of everybody in society to help Brent keep the school open.”
“There is heat on both sides,” Bischoff added. “Some of it is politically motivated, which is too bad. It shouldn’t be. There are some who don’t take this too seriously, but there are people who are on the other side who are petrified and so we want to kind of speak to both of them. We’re doing all the prep we can. We are not going to succumb to political pressure and throw kids back into a room before we think we can do so without a decent amount of safety to it.”
The governor could step in and make a blanket decision for all the schools in the state, but Freeman hopes he won’t.
“I think there are places like Wahkiakum where we have a really good relationship with our health department, we have some really good knowledge, we have really good control over our facilities, and we have a good plan. I would like to roll it out,” Freeman said.