STANWOOD — Hundreds of elementary students will soon be back in classrooms in some Snohomish County public schools.
Three districts — Stanwood, Sultan and Arlington — are now, or will very soon, provide limited in-person instruction for the first time since March, when the coronavirus outbreak triggered the shuttering of all campuses across the state.
Other districts are in various stages of gearing up for in-person teaching but are not as far along.
Stanwood began its school year Sept. 10, with kindergartners in classrooms at each of the district’s five elementary schools. Students in first through third grades are set to return Oct. 5.
In Sultan, kindergarten classes will resume at Sultan and Gold Bar elementaries Tuesday, with first- and second-graders arriving at those schools Oct. 5, followed by third-graders a couple weeks later.
And in Arlington, kindergartners and first-graders will be welcomed back Oct. 5 at four elementary schools.
Each district will employ a format that blends face-to-face instruction with distance learning. Classes will be split into two groups of students that will follow a prescribed schedule. That will reduce the number of students in a classroom to enable better physical distancing, as required by public health officials.
If parents aren’t ready to send their children back to school, they can keep them in 100% remote learning if they wish.
“We have to proceed cautiously,” said Maurene Stanton, executive director of human resources for the Stanwood-Camano School District.
The move toward normalization by these school districts comes amid continued signs the spread of coronavirus is slowing in Snohomish County.
COVID-19 infections declined to 44 per 100,000 residents for the two-week period ending Sept. 12, down from a high of nearly 100 cases in mid-July. The percentage of people testing positive is decreasing and hospitalizations are down, according to the latest report of the Snohomish Health District.
Under statewide guidance, schools should stick with remote learning in counties with a rate of more than 75 cases per 100,000 people. But when the rate falls to between 25 and 75 cases per 100,000, the recommendation is for schools to look at gradually resuming some in-person instruction starting with the youngest students.
“A reasonable next step is for schools to begin planning for how to expand in-person learning to elementary school students, as well as to any high-needs students in any grade level not already receiving in-person services,” Dr. Chris Spitters, Snohomish County’s public health officer, said last week. “This does not mean schools should immediately go to full, in-person attendance in all elementary school settings.”
Spitters recommended schools slow-walk any reopening. He wants them to wait at least three weeks after Labor Day to see if there might be a post-holiday surge in their community or in the county, as occurred after the Memorial Day and July 4 holidays.
After one group of students has resumed in-person learning, schools should allow for at least three weeks before bringing in the next group, according to his Sept. 11 recommendations. This allows time to detect impacts to disease transmission, he said.
Stanwood and Sultan are operating a little ahead of his suggested timetable. However, new cases of COVID-19 infections in those communities have been negligible in recent weeks. The latest health district report shows fewer than five cases in each city between Aug. 23 and Sept. 5. Arlington recorded 19 in the same period.
Stanwood, Arlington and Sultan are the first to begin reopening in a broader fashion, though several districts are providing face-to-face instruction for a small number of students with special needs.
In Stanwood, kindergarten students are receiving two days a week of in-person instruction and three days of distance learning. Half of the students are on campus Monday and Tuesday and the other half on Thursday and Friday. All students are engaged in distance learning on Wednesdays. By Oct. 5, an estimated 1,000 students will be going to schools, with a projected 150 remaining in distance learning, Stanton said.
Arlington plans to use a similar approach. It will have half of its kindergarten and first grade students on campus Mondays and Tuesdays, with the other half on campus Wednesdays and Thursdays. No in-person instruction would occur on Fridays. There are roughly 660 students in those grades in the district.
“We will monitor the success of bringing this first group back for at least three weeks, then, depending on the results, begin to consider and plan for the next group of students,” said Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Chrys Sweeting. “Safety for students and staff is a top priority.”
Sultan is taking a slightly different approach. It will have one group of kindergarten students attending classes each morning and another each afternoon. First- and second-grade students will start under the same morning-afternoon model. Superintendent Dan Chaplik estimated kindergarten classes will have seven to 10 students in each group.
The time students are not engaged in in-person learning would be time that they are participating in asynchronous learning developed by the teacher, said Chaplik.
Districts will be following a similar course of action to prevent infections and protect against the virus’ spread.
Parents will be asked before each school day to attest that their child does not have any COVID-related symptoms. Temperature checks of students will be done. Students, teachers and staff will need to wear masks. Classrooms will be arranged in ways to achieve physical distance.
Sultan, for example, will have students enter through a designated entry point, where they will wash their hands and be met by a screener behind a clear barrier. If a student does not have a completed attestation form for that day, screeners will ask them if they have any of the symptoms.
Should a student contract COVID, school leaders will work with the health district on a response. It may result in an entire class being quarantined for 14 days. It will require a thorough cleaning, including buses. A full-school closure would depend on the situation.
“We plan on being very disciplined and focused with our safety protocols, so if everyone is doing their part it can be handled a number of different ways, depending on the circumstances,” Chaplik said in an email.
Spitters, in his recommendations to districts, said to expect positive cases to arise.
“It is inevitable that cases will occur in students and school staff as we bring more people together, but a case is not a failure on the school or district,” he said. “We all must be prepared and ready to respond in a coordinated and sustainable fashion.”