Hawthorne Elementary School in Everett. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Hawthorne Elementary School in Everett. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Dr. Spitters: Bringing students back to school is too risky

The Everett, Edmonds, Mukilteo and Stanwood Camano districts announced Wednesday they’ll go remote this fall.

EVERETT — Families throughout Snohomish County should prepare for more remote learning this fall.

On Wednesday, Dr. Chris Spitters, the county’s top health officer, said welcoming students back to campuses is too risky, and he recommended that districts stick with virtual classes, given the continued resurgence of COVID-19 cases. Within hours, the Everett, Edmonds, Mukilteo and Stanwood Camano school districts announced plans for 100% remote learning in the fall, while others grappled with the decision.

“We know that fall is quickly approaching, and plans need to be finalized on how schools will start the academic year,” he said in a news release. “By making this recommendation now, I hope that provides our schools and their staff and families with as much time as possible to prepare for online learning.”

Local school districts have been drawing up plans to reopen schools, some with hybrid schedules, hoping to get the green light from health experts.

Spitters’ announcement is leading many to lean toward a remote model for the fall, but districts could still choose to bring students back to the classroom.

In Everett, the school board is expected to approve the district’s remote plan in August. Later that month, administrators will offer a “Parent University” program to help prepare for the school year.

“Remote learning in September will look quite different than it looked in the spring,” Everett Superintendent Ian Saltzman said in a letter to district families. “We heard your feedback loud and clear and are making adjustments and improvements to the remote learning model.”

Educators want to be back in schools, said Jared Kink, president of the district’s teachers union, but “if it is not safe to go back, we will have to work hard to make distance teaching the best it can be to engage, educate and support all students and staff in the system.”

The Edmonds, Mukilteo, Snohomish and Stanwood Camano school districts are also planning for 100% remote learning this fall.

In Mukilteo, a district survey showed half of families preferred a remote learning model.

Additionally, Snohomish is among the districts intending to go all-remote, with the school board expected to make a formal decision by the end of the week.

Prior to Spitters’ recommendation, several districts in the county were preparing to submit plans to the state that would do just that.

The Edmonds, Arlington and Lakewood school districts picked a hybrid schedule for their fall re-openings, an approach many districts around the state are eyeing. Students would be divided into two groups that would each attend in-person classes twice a week, and work remotely for the rest of the days.

“Before in-person learning can take place, we must ensure the safety of our students and staff,” Edmonds Superintendent Gustavo Balderas said in a news release. “With the increasing health risks surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, we just do not see a way we can safely reopen our school buildings at this time.”

The Edmonds School District hopes to possibly phase students back into the classroom in November.

For Lakewood, the school board was slated to discuss remote learning during a Wednesday night study session. A vote on the district’s fall plan is expected next week.

“We, as a district, are going to be taking this guidance very seriously,” Lakewood Superintendent Scott Peacock said.

On Monday, Marysville Superintendent Jason Thompson told families that the district was already leaning toward starting the year with virtual classes.

In Lake Stevens, the school board scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday night to discuss, and potentially vote on, a remote learning plan.

Leaders of Snohomish schools met Wednesday too to discuss Spitters’ recommendation and their next steps. A decision on going with all remote learning this fall is expected this week.

On Thursday, an Arlington School District committee is to finish its reopening plan.

State leaders say they’re leaving the decision on schooling up to the districts, for now.

“This is a really complex decision that every community has to make,” Kathy Lofy, the state’s chief health officer, said during a news briefing.

A statewide school closure is still a possibility, though, Secretary of Health John Wiesman said during the same briefing.

Several of the state’s largest districts, like Seattle, Kent and Northshore, have already announced they’re sticking with virtual classes for the fall.

Teachers, parents and administrators have acknowledged the difficulties, limitations and inequities caused by remote learning.

“We understand the challenges that parents face in terms of providing support to their kids for remote learning and for being that teacher on site,” Peacock said. “We also understand the challenges and hardships this creates for people needing to go back to work. We’re going to do everything we can as a district to provide structure and accountability.”

In June, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Rekydal told reporters he expected students would return to classrooms for the upcoming school year.

Then, COVID-19 cases spiked back up as counties advanced through Gov. Jay Inslee’s phased “Safe Start” re-opening plan.

Snohomish County’s case rates are nearing their previous peak in March, with infections rising in young people.

Geographically, new cases are spread proportionally throughout the county, Spitters has said, except for some rural towns.

Index is the lone city with zero reported infections.

Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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