The Lewis County Schools Workgroup, tasked with reopening schools quickly and safely, met with county commissioners on Thursday to field questions from members of the public, who attended via Zoom. Almost 90 participants joined, many of whom were concerned that schools weren’t opening fast enough.
Earlier this month, Lewis County Public Health and Social Services recommended that schools begin some in-person learning as soon as Sept. 28, contradicting Gov. Inslee’s recommendations, which urge high-risk counties to stick with distance-only learning. The county’s recommendations prioritize kindergarten and middle and high school CTE and lab classes, which are more difficult to do online.
When the recommendations were first announced, public health officers said they were encouraged by that week’s low number of new COVID-19 cases. However, Lewis County has since seen a surge of cases, breaking its record on Tuesday for the highest single-day total with 22 new cases.
“Last week the optimism I was showing was probably pretty premature,” Public Health Director J.P. Anderson said Tuesday.
But county commissioners and public health officials say they’re excited to lead the state in what they have characterized as an aggressive plan to re-open schools. While the goal is to open as quickly and as safely as possible, J.P. Anderson acknowledged that not everyone agrees on what the strategy should look like.
“The term ‘quickly’ is pretty relative,” he said. “I think for some people, that would be next week, but some people I think would like to see a vaccine before we open schools.”
The workgroup, which meets weekly and consists of educators, physicians, and infection prevention experts, told participants that they will reassess the recommendation once a month, and are considering a multitude of factors, including public health, internet access, loss of social interaction, mental health, and impact on families.
“I did not make this recommendation in a vacuum. It was made in consultation with many partners locally, regionally, and at the state,” Health Officer Dr. Rachel Wood said. “It was made trying to balance loss of learning and socialization with loss of life.”
Wood emphasized that parents will still have the option of remote learning, and won’t be forced to send their kids to school. The group also introduced the metaphor of “COVID currency,” representing all the times individuals are in contact with other people. Officials encouraged residents to spend that currency on their kids, limiting any other contact they have as schools reopen.
Some questions sent in from the public asked county officials why they prioritized kindergarten classes over other grades. Dr. Jennifer Caserta of Northwest Pediatrics told participants that young children tend to be less effective COVID-19 transmitters, and that the group is prioritizing pre-literacy learning, which is critical for childhood development.
“Kids under 10 don't seem to transmit or get the virus as effectively as older kids,” Caserta said.
To individuals asking why all middle and high schoolers couldn’t resume in-person classes, Wood reminded the public that the strategy is to “dial up slowly.”
“We want to operationalize the in-person learning so we can work out the kinks,” Wood said. “When it was brought to my attention that some of these students could graduate with a certificate that would allow them to go out and get a job, and they couldn’t do this learning online, that’s why I said ‘ok, let’s see how we can operationalize this.’”
Onalaska Superintendent Jeff Davis described schools in his district that have welding and aquaculture classes that can’t be conducted online.
“We have a hatchery where we’re raising thousands and thousands of fish,” Davis said. “We have a lot of students that are in that course, so we also have to get them on campus to take care of those fish as well as learn about that part of aquaculture.”
In general, safety precautions the work group discussed match current recommendations from the state — masks, distancing, and hand-washing. Health officials also said students should be screened daily, potentially by their parents instead of school employees. Students who are diagnosed with COVID, show symptoms, or are in close contact to someone with COVID, could be kept home for 10-14 days depending on the circumstance. Regional Superintendent Dr. Dana Anderson, who moderated the event, also recommended rotating teachers through different classrooms instead of having large numbers of students traverse the school.
Concerns were also raised about children in abusive situations who previously counted on schools providing a safe space. According to Caserta, child abuse reports go up in the fall when school resumes, as teachers are often the ones to notice and report signs of abuse or neglect. But county and health officials didn’t offer a substantial plan for helping these at-risk kids.
“If we knew who they were, we could make a report,” Caserta said.
Instead, J.P. Anderson and Caserta said schools and grassroots organizations would take the lead on identifying at-risk kids in their communities.
The meeting went slightly over the allotted 90 minutes, with Commissioner Gary Stamper saying they didn’t hear from the public enough. According to Dana Anderson, countless questions were left unanswered. While some participants used the chat to thank county officials, others grew more frustrated, threatening to unenroll their kids.
“This is just the beginning of this dialogue,” Commissioner Edna Fund said.
The county plans on addressing more of the public’s questions in a written response.