School districts in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley are working to flesh out plans for reopening as the start of the school year quickly approaches.

Many uncertainties remain, as both Idaho and Washington continue to see COVID-19 cases climb.

“This is a novel virus, and we are learning a lot,” said Dr. Bob Lutz, the public health officer for Spokane and Asotin counties. “What we knew yesterday is not what we know today and not what we’ll know tomorrow. When the pandemic hit, it was really quite easy to say ‘close the schools,’ and in many respects and on many levels, in the U.S. and internationally, I believe it did have an impact (on transmission). The question now is what does it look like when schools reopen?”

The Clarkston, Lewiston and Asotin-Anatone school districts are working to answer that question as they draft reopening plans that encompass a variety of options for how education is delivered this fall. School officials hope to release their plans as early as this week.

“I think the concern a lot of parents have with the school district is they think that we make the decisions on what we can and can’t do,” said Asotin Superintendent Dale Bonfield. “The reality is we have to follow the guidelines from the state and the health department — they dictate what we can and can’t do. I’m not saying we disagree with (those guidelines), but parents get frustrated because we can’t make decisions quickly, and some of those decisions keep changing.”

As the planning process continues, one thing is certain: The start of the 2020-21 school year will look much different from previous years.

Clarkston School District

As of now, schools in Clarkston will reopen at 50 percent capacity this fall. The school district plans to implement a blended approach to instruction as it reworks classrooms to abide by social distancing guidelines.

“We don’t have enough square footage to have all of our students in the building at the same time,” Superintendent Thaynan Knowlton said.

The district issued a survey to garner feedback from parents on scheduling options. Possibilities include an a.m./p.m. schedule for students in kindergarten through sixth grades, under which elementary students would attend either a morning or afternoon session of school each day. At the secondary level, students in seventh through 12th grades likely would attend school every other day.

“The instruction and learning that’s going to happen this fall will look so much better than it looked this spring,” Clarkston High School Principal Doug LaMunyan said.

Like at other schools in Washington, students and staff will be required to wear face coverings and will undergo daily health screenings, which can be completed by parents before their kids head to school.

The school district has tried to make the most out of its current situation by researching ways to bring expanded online offerings to its students for years to come.

“(The past several months) have been difficult, but we are planning for the future, and we are not making decisions only for this (school) year,” Knowlton said. “We are making long-term decisions to fundamentally change how kids are educated in a new and exciting world.”

During Monday’s school board meeting, the district announced it would offer three new online opportunities for students.

This fall, the district will implement Clarkston Online, a virtual schooling opportunity that will allow students to complete their schoolwork at their own pace from home.

“If students and families are considering taking their kids out (of school) because they are nervous about the virus and are considering other online programs, we would like to offer ours as a strong alternative,” Knowlton said.

The programs used for Clarkston Online have been approved by the state, but will be locally supported and taught, with follow-up from a local teacher, he said.

The school district also will launch a pilot program known as Clarkston Virtual Classroom. More than 20 Clarkston secondary teachers will broadcast their lessons from their classrooms in various core subject areas. A limited number of students can tune in to catch the lessons live from their homes.

The one-year virtual classroom pilot will offer two options: A short-term option for students who are out sick and a long-term version where students can take the class remotely throughout the year.

Since the classes only cover core subjects, students in the pilot program would still have to show up in person for their other classes, such as electives.

The school district hopes to add more grade levels and classrooms in the future.

“We just feel like with this virtual classroom option that, if there are problems or issues we have to deal with in the future and the kids can’t come to school for whatever reason, they can always keep up with their classrooms and peers,” Knowlton said.

The third virtual offering is the Clarkston Home Alliance, which would cater to homeschooled students of all grade levels. By creating partnerships with parents, homeschooled students would have access to Clarkston’s curriculum. The students could take one or more classes in areas parents may struggle teaching, such as calculus or Advanced Placement physics.

The school district plans to start the program with about 40 kids the first year.

The Clarkston School Board will consider the approval of the district’s reopening plan at its Monday meeting.

Asotin-Anatone School District

Superintendent Bonfield said his school district plans to bring its students back for face-to-face learning this fall.

Common areas, like Wilcox Gym and the cafeteria, will be used for classroom spaces, allowing students to be spaced 6 feet apart, while wearing face coverings.

“(The social distancing) would eliminate a lot of the group work we’ve done in the past,” Bonfield said. “The style of instruction will have to be a little bit different, so there are going to be some tweaks to instruction.”

He said the school district is working on a draft version of a plan that will give students the opportunity to tune into classes online.

“I’m anticipating that maybe 10 percent of our student body might look at (remote options),” he said.

Breakfast and lunch would be offered in a grab-and-go fashion. Students could eat outside if the weather is good or would eat their meals in classrooms.

The school district will have contingency plans in place in case a blended approach to education is warranted.

Bonfield said the logistics are being ironed out, and plans should be finalized within the next two weeks.

“We are currently working with guidance from the state and (the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) that we will be providing parents,” Bonfield said. “We are trying to wait for as much information and direction as possible prior to sending it out to parents.”

More than 70 parents attended a Zoom meeting Thursday, where they were able to ask questions of Lutz, the public health physician.

Lutz said local health officers will soon provide more guidance on protocols related to the reopening of schools.

He answered questions about the effectiveness of face coverings, social distancing and grouping students so transmission of the coronavirus is limited.

Lewiston School District

Superintendent Bob Donaldson said Lewiston administrators are working out the details for the three levels of school reopenings approved by the state, after adopting the Idaho State Board of Education’s Back to School Framework earlier this month.

The plans will be brought to two stakeholder groups early this week for feedback. The school board will hold a special meeting Wednesday to adopt the plans, which will be sent to parents shortly after.

“We are going to try to have a high level of communication every step of the way with both our staff and parents,” Donaldson said. “It’s not easy, because there are so many moving pieces.”

The state’s plan includes three categories for reopening.

Category 1 means there is no community transmission of the coronavirus and would include a traditional learning model with all school buildings open.

Category 2 is if there is minimal to moderate community transmission. It includes options that range from a traditional educational model, a hybrid, or blended approach, that features staggered use of school buildings, or a switch to remote learning with limited in-person instruction.

Category 3 includes substantial community transmission. Education would be delivered in a distance or remote way with school buildings closed for extended periods of time longer than six weeks.

Donaldson said as of now, the school district likely lands in either category 1 or 2, but that could “turn on a dime.”

If Lewiston starts school in Category 2 it would include an a.m./p.m. schedule for elementary students, while secondary students would likely attend classes every other day.

Uncertainties remain

Both Washington and Idaho officials have stated they want kids to return to a face-to-face model of education.

Lutz said the closure of schools in the spring affected students who were not able to interact with their peers and teachers. Other countries have had success reopening schools, he said, but new research shows younger populations are susceptible to COVID-19.

“We thought maybe young people under the age of 18 weren’t impacted by COVID-19, and we know that not to be the case anymore,” he said. “The age group of 10 to 19 essentially has the same burden of the disease, the same likelihood of attracting it and importantly, transmitting it to family members, their parents, grandparents and younger siblings at the same rate as adults.”

He told parents to be patient with school districts as they work through their reopening plans.

“We need you to be prepared,” he said. “Any reopening plans need to be calibrated, cautious, nimble and flexible.”

He encouraged parents to have their children get used to face coverings before their return to school.

At a Lewiston School Board meeting earlier this month, Craig Ambroson, a local pediatrician, read a letter advocating for a normal return to school.

“Now that we have entered summer, planning has begun on how to safely reopen schools this fall,” Ambroson said. “We believe that there is now very encouraging data pointing toward a safe, in-person return this year. … Coronavirus is not influenza. It has been a much milder disease for young people, especially school-aged children.”

Layne McInelly, the president of the Idaho Education Association, released a statement this week expressing his concerns about reopening schools. He argued school districts do not have the resources needed to reopen safely and effectively.

“School buildings absolutely should not reopen if cases continue to rise and there is community spread where the school district is located,” McInelly said. “If federal, state and local officials are unwilling or unable to provide the resources and support to ensure that our schools can open safely, they should tap the brakes on reopening school buildings until circumstances have changed for the better.”

He advocated for hazard pay for educators and sufficient funding from state, local and federal sources.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement Thursday on the importance of reopening schools this fall. It stated extended school closures are harmful to children and said evidence indicates COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to school-aged children.

“Reopening schools creates opportunity to invest in the education, well-being and future of one of America’s greatest assets — our children — while taking every precaution to protect students, teachers, staff and all their families,” stated the CDC.

All of the school districts in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley will implement vigorous cleaning standards and will have protocols in place for when a person tests positive in a school building.

The first day of school for the Lewiston and Clarkston school districts is scheduled for Aug. 26. The Asotin-Anatone School District’s first day is scheduled for Sept. 1.

Tomtas may be contacted at jtomtas@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2294. Follow her on Twitter @jtomtas.

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