Gov. Inslee Praises Reopening of Schools During Eastern Washington Visit


Pasco's students are the latest example of how schools can open safely, said Gov. Jay Inslee.

Inslee visited Robert Frost Elementary school for an hour Tuesday as part of a series of tours of schools across the state. He is looking for ways districts are succeeding at bringing students back during the pandemic.

"This is most impressive. You have your act together big time here. It's such an inspiration," Inslee told a group of teachers, paraeducators and parents from the distinct. "This is a Herculean effort that you have been involved in both in remote and when you've been onsite."

Inslee stopped by a pair of classrooms to talk with children and had a 20-minute meeting with teachers, administrators and parents on their feelings around reopening.

This was the first time Inslee has been to a Tri-City school, which were some of the earliest schools to open their doors again.

The state superintendent's office says about 36 percent of students statewide are back to attending classes in person each week.

Pasco elementary students returned to class in November and the final students to return, 10th through 12th graders, began classes last week. Kennewick and Richland students also are back learning in-person part of the week.

Mary Ann Parra has seen an improvement in her students since they've returned. The resource room teacher at Frost said many of her students struggle with technology.

"In our building, I think it's been a no-brainer," she said. "Our school district has provided the (personal protective equipment) and the things we need. I think we all wanted to come back to work. ... Coming back, face-to-face was a huge, huge step for us."

Even having the children back two days a week, she has seen students make up for the losses some experienced when they were stuck with only learning online.

Pasco reported that since schools have opened the number of COVID cases at the district have decreased, Superintendent Michelle Whitney told the governor. Their figures show that schools are not contributing to the spread of the virus.

The districts have not seen a large spike in the number of reported cases. Pasco, which as the most students, reported 29 COVID cases since Feb. 22. Kennewick has reported 12 cases in that time period and Richland had four.

Case rates in Benton and Franklin counties county are on a downward trend, according the health district reports.

"Everything has gone relatively smoothly," said Shane Edinger, the district's director of public affairs. "I was at Stevens Middle School and there was a lot of smiling faces and kids that were happy to be there and teachers that were happy to have their kids there."

The schools opened after a recommendation by Dr. Amy Person with Benton Franklin Health District that said the schools could open safely as long as they maintained 6-foot distances, had students wear masks and followed other safety measures.

At the time, she explained the districts are still likely to see cases, but schools would not create additional cases.

Inslee echoed that the science was saying that teachers and students are safer in the classroom than they would be in the larger community.

The district also has been accommodating parents and teachers who aren't ready to return because they or a loved one may be at a higher risk for COVID. So far about 20 percent of elementary students and 25 percent of middle and high school students are still learning online.

Heather Kubalek, a parent attending the round table discussion, said her daughter was happy to return to school.

"In her words, 'It's been the worst year of her life,'" Kubalek said "She's in drama, she's in band, she's in cross country and just hasn't done any of those things. ... It was really hard for her to be home."

The cost to children's mental health is one of the reasons Inslee said he wants to make sure students get into classes. He also mentioned concerns about abuse cases that are being missed because students aren't in school.

While he supported having students back and was impressed with the efforts in Pasco, he stopped short of offering when students could be in classrooms longer.

The rule from the state requires a six-foot separation between students. That limits the number of students that can be in a classroom at one time and as a result restricts the number of hours they can attend.

"We are constantly evaluating that question. There is increasing suggestions that this can be done safely. We're looking at that evidence. We're thinking about how it affects school openings because we want to get people in at least in a hybrid model."

COVID testing and vaccinations

Pasco recently joined the second phase of school districts that will offer COVID testing to students and staff.

The district still has not finalized any plans for when, where and who could get the testing.

Parents and community members said they were concerned the testing might be mandatory and that children would be tested without parents knowing.

Neither of those are the case, Edinger said. The program would be voluntary and parents would need to agree before any minor could be tested.

School officials from the three districts are working on a way to get employees vaccines if they want them. Inslee recently announced that teachers and childcare workers are now eligible to get the vaccines.

While Western Washington districts are being served by Kaiser Permanente, Tri-City schools don't have the same opportunity. They are working with Education Service District 123 and Kadlec Regional Medical Center on a plan.

"We needed to put together a partnership with the ESD and our local health providers," Edinger said.

The change lets school employees use the mass vaccination site at the Benton County Fairgrounds.