Thurston County Health Officer Dr. Dimyana Abdelmalek has issued new guidance for Thurston County schools that could result in elementary and middle school students in the county heading back to school by the end of the month.
The guidance released by Thurston County on Jan. 5 outlines a plan to get younger students back to in-person school. The plan is based upon the new metrics for in-person learning announced by Gov. Jay Inslee in December. If test positivity in Thurston County remain in the “moderate range,” which is between a 5 to 10 percent positivity rate, for the three weeks following the New Year’s Day holiday, then elementary and middle school students in Thurston County can begin attending in-person school.
The most recent one-week positivity rate reported on the Thurston County website is 7.2 percent. For comparison, Lewis County’s most recent positivity rate is in the “high range” — reported at 12.7 percent by the state Department of Health.
Tenino School District superintendent of the past seven years Joe Belmonte said he is remaining “cautiously optimistic” and is hopeful that the county’s COVID-19 cases will stay in the “moderate range” over the course of the three week period.
A majority of Tenino students have been learning virtually since March of 2020 other than approximately 150 students in specialized programs such as special education, speech therapy or students who are struggling with remote learning.
“Our rate in Thurston County has dropped in the past couple of days, so we’re feeling comfortable that we will stay in the moderate range and I think that the health officer is cautiously optimistic about that as well,” Belmonte said. “So we are planning to start up the hybrid in-person learning.”
If all goes as planned, the Tenino School District is working toward getting kindergarten through fifth grade back in the classroom on Jan. 25 and sixth through eighth grades back on Feb. 1, which is the start of the next semester. There will be a fully virtual option available for families that don’t feel comfortable sending their child back to school yet.
The district has been conducting a survey of families to determine which students will tentatively be participating in the hybrid model. As of Thursday, about 71 percent of families said they would be sending their students to in-person schooling, 16 percent are more comfortable with remote learning and 13 percent are still undecided.
“Of course the more certainty we can have the better, but I understand that (Abdelmalek) has to look at the big picture of the transmission rate and hospitalization and all of those other factors,” Belmonte said. “But this approach with the health department I feel comfortable planning.”
Belmonte said that teachers and school staff should absolutely be a high priority when it comes to who should be vaccinated next. Health care professionals are in the 1a phase, which is the phase that is being vaccinated now. The specifics of who is included in the 1b phase were released just this week.
“The more we can do to make families, parents and kids comfortable coming back to school the better. I will say that I’m pretty confident that school employees will be in the next round of people getting the vaccine,” he said.
In the meantime, the Tenino School District is being thoughtful in deciding which teachers will be returning to teach in-person based upon age and preexisting conditions that could make them more vulnerable in the face of the coronavirus, Belmonte said.
Inslee’s updated school guidance can be viewed on the department of health’s website at www.governor.wa.gov/news-media/inslee-announces-updated-school-guidance-person-instruction.