Chewelah School District moving to K-8 in-person learning four days a week

(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)

BRINGING KIDS BACK: Chewelah School Board votes to return most kids back to school…

Momentum continues to build in Washington state’s educational system and the Chewelah School District to move back to a more normal learning experience as the grasp of the COVID-19 pandemic loosens.

Three weeks ago, the Chewelah School Board voted to re-open the elementary and middle schools four days per week after spring break. This wasn’t done suddenly and was the result of weeks of hard work from staff and administrators to figure out how the district could follow state guidelines while bringing kids back to school.

Shawn Anderson explained the reopening plan for middle school students at JJSHS while Gess Elementary principal Julie Price also gave a presentation on the reopening plan during the Chewelah School Board meeting last Thursday.

Anderson said it’s a matter of shifting students around and scheduling right to keep a six-foot distance during learning in person. The issue of more days of learning is that the district had to split classes in half because of the space requirement. Years ago, the school district went from three school buildings to two because of declining enrollment, meaning that the Chewelah School District has less space than some other neighboring districts.

“We also recognize this is going to require some additional support in cleaning,” Anderson said, as the district plans on hiring some additional cleaning staff to handle this.

“We’re going to start that on the Tuesday after the start of the quarter, which I believe is on [April 13],” Anderson said.

The principal said he believes its workable, because more the district has more state funding to deal with the additional cleaning requirements. He also said he will continue to look at plans to bring more kids back to school, but said bringing high school kids back four days a week may not be feasible due to space (currently they are going two days a week).

Superintendent Rich McFarland said that this reopening plan is following all the guidelines from the State Department of Health, including the six-foot distance which they are hoping will loosen up.

If it doesn’t loosen up before next year, McFarland said that the school district will have to figure out how to get more space, including modular classrooms. Anderson suggested maybe the district would have to rent out additional space in town, perhaps a performing arts building or other large structure to increase how many kids they can bring in, if current six-foot space requirements remain.

“Yes, we will have issues, but its something we can all figure out together as a team,” Anderson said.

School board members T.O. Bakken and Kyra Rolstad complimented Anderson on the reopening plan and reiterated everybody in the district wants to get more kids back in school.

Price said that before opening the school year, Gess Elementary had looked at class sizes and the space in the building to develop capacity numbers. She then went grade-by-grade, discussing the various sizes of grades and what teachers did to ensure kids could come into the school, complimenting teachers for being accommodating and creative with solutions.

Still, the reopening will require additional staffing for some teaching, para-educating and custodial jobs. Price added for additional staff to handle the increased cleaning and demands schedule-wise, that will be placed on those working in the district.

The school board also asked about the high number of Quartzite Learning students and if kids in that program would move over to the brick and mortar schools once they opened more. One of the concerns of school board member Bryan Tidwell was if it was possible to transfer midway through the school year.

Quartzite Learning Principal Erin Dell said it was possible, but also is on a case-by-case basis.

“We do have potential space concerns and it depends on the age of the student and the situation of the student,” Dell said. “Ultimately any time a student switches programs, we have a conversation with the student and family and come up with the best solution.”

Tidwell said he was a bit concerned by space, as the reopening plan already has some grades with numbers of students that are about as high as they can go while meeting capacity and space requirements.

“Numbers are tight right now, and when we talk about equity and access, and I just want to make sure we can flex where we are able to,” Tidwell said.

The point of contention for the Chewelah School District and other schools in Washington has been the Department of Health’s six-foot distance between students in the classroom.

Two weeks ago, area superintendents sent a letter to the state asking them to relax it to three feet. While no official response has been made by the state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent said that it was relaxing its guidelines for children in schools.

The CDC now recommends just three feet of distance between students as long as everyone is wearing a mask. The CDC cited a study recently published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases that found no difference in COVID-19 rates between three and six feet as long as other steps to mitigate the disease spread were taken.

While the state has not changed their guidelines of six feet as of press time, if they do follow the CDC guidelines of three feet, this would allow the Chewelah School District to possibly open more in-person learning to more students. This would also alleviate the need as mentioned previously in the article for renting out more space or bringing in portable classrooms.

State Republican leaders Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, and Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, on Thursday urged Gov. Jay Inslee to endorse three-foot spacing in the state’s classrooms as a replacement to the current recommendation of six feet of space between students and staff.
“We’re hearing from school districts that the six-foot spacing of students is the largest hurdle to reopening classrooms,” the lawmakers wrote in a joint press release. “The director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention essentially agreed when speaking to members of Congress yesterday. She also noted how Massachusetts has seen success with three-foot spacing, when combined with proper face covering and hygiene.”