Chehalis Citizens Share Reopening Plan Concerns with Chehalis School Board

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Despite the attendance of 62 parents and community members, only four people gave public comment regarding reopening schools during a Chehalis Special School Board meeting on Tuesday evening. Of the people who spoke during the meeting, there was support for reopening as soon as possible and support for a cautious reopening plan that keeps in mind the high infection rate in Lewis County. 

Before the meeting was opened up for public comment, Chehalis School District Superintendent Christine Moloney provided an overview of the district reopening plan for all grade levels.

Kindergarteners started in-person school on an A/B schedule on Oct. 5, first grade is planned to return on Oct. 26, second through fifth grade on Nov. 2, sixth through eighth grade on Nov. 16 and all high school students on Nov. 30.

All grade levels will be attending school on an A/B schedule with some students splitting their week between in-person and online school. Moloney said that the district will be using an A/B model for the foreseeable future because there isn’t enough space in the school buildings to have all students back at once while maintaining proper social distancing. 

The district will have fully-online learning options for all students. 

Kelly Wichert, a parent of a Chehalis student, spoke first and urged the school board to get students back in school sooner saying that she feels the mental health impact of online schooling outweighs the risk of COVID-19.

“The seasonal flu is more deadly… That’s where the school board needs to look — there’s more detriment to these kids online. Kids are going to get sick but they’re going to recover. It’s the teachers we need to worry about,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control says the COVID-19 virus spreads more easily than the flu and “causes more serious illnesses in some people.” There is a vaccine to protect against the flu and no vaccine to protect people from COVID-19.

Wichert said that she doesn’t feel the school board is representing the kids the way they need to be represented.

Cecilia Birchard cited the CDC by saying the flu kills between 12,000 and 61,000 annually and COVID-19 has killed over 215,000 people in ten months in the United States. 

“I don’t feel the school is ready to monitor and respond to confirmed cases. For one thing, our health department does not report community spread,” she said.

Birchard told the school board she is concerned with Lewis County’s lack of rapid testing. She pulled numbers from the Washington State Risk Assessment Dashboard and reported them to the school board.

“I’m concerned that you are not using the indicators recommended by the health department for in-person learning,” she said.

In Thurston County, there are 59 cases per 100,000 people and in Lewis County, it is 148.5 cases per 100,000, as of Wednesday afternoon. In Lewis County, the rate of positivity is 5.2 percent and the goal for Lewis County’s risk assessment is below 2 percent. 

Updated COVID-19 risk assessment information by county can be found on the Washington State Risk Assessment Dashboard — coronavirus.wa.gov/what-you-need-know/covid-19-risk-assessment-dashboard. 

Chehalis citizen Brian Mittge said he supports the school board following a science-based decision-making process when reopening schools. Mittge is also a paid columnist for The Chronicle.

“We want to make sure you are following safety protocols and doing what the science says is correct and not succumbing to public pressure — putting our community at risk,” Mittge said.

Mittge said that if a student isn’t wearing a mask then they should be sent home in the interest of public safety. He brought up concerns about students passing each other in the hallways. The safety of older teachers and teachers with preexisting conditions was also a concern.

The school board did not respond to concerns of comments and said they were there only to listen. 

The meeting was held in-person at W.F. West High School in a large auditorium and on Zoom, which is where all but one in-person attendee viewed the meeting.

The district was prepared for more in-person attendees, having classrooms set up with Zoom so that more people could directly address the school board while keeping 10 or fewer people in the room at a time. However, the extra space was not needed.

School Board member J. Vander Stoep acted as the moderator for the meeting and said at the start of the meeting that he hadn’t met a Chehalis resident that doesn’t want to get students back in school.

“Every year at every school in America, students coming together raises health risks — flus get spread, colds get spread because students are close together. That won’t change,” he said.

Vander Stoep asked families to make their decisions carefully when deciding to send their child back to school if the student is often in contact with grandparents or people who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

More information about the Chehalis School District reopening plan can be found on its website at chehalisschools.org/. The school board will also hear public comments at the Oct. 20 school board meeting.

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