Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank is confident schools can offer onsite instruction this fall — even if COVID-19 cases increase — by following the lead of hospitals that have workers relatively coronavirus-free, she said this week.
In following certain guidelines, school districts like Port Angeles could provide a combination of classroom and distance learning, while comparatively smaller districts such as Crescent might be able to allow full attendance, she told the county Board of Health July 21.
Hospitals have reported two instances of health care workers contracting COVID-19, and the carriers did not transmit the virus to any patients, Unthank said.
“How do you keep teachers and kids safe, even when you have large numbers of cases, and I think we have a good model for that,” she said.
“We can plan for 6-feet distancing at desks with masking of children,” she said.
Unthank is recommending higher-grade masks for teachers, “these kinds of paper masks, or surgical masks or docs’ masks” that will keep teachers safe if a child is sick, she added.
Port Angeles School District will have to use a hybrid model of education of combining distance learning and staggered classroom instruction with limited classroom sizes, she said. The school board approved a hybrid plan earlier this month.
Sequim SchoolDistricts board of directors are expected to make adecision on its school reopening plan at an Aug. 3 board meeting. Dr. Rob Clark and a reopening comittee have presented to baord directores in recent weeks three hybrid model options.
“The hybrid model is not perfect if there are large numbers of cases, but it accommodates safe spacing of children,” Unthank said.
Those measures should be combined with frequent classroom cleaning, symptom screening of students and keeping them in the same group throughout the day to limit virus transmission.
Unthank said a school district such as Crescent with smaller class sizes might be able to completely resume classroom operations with similar measures.
Schools can operate regardless of what phase a county is in. Clallam and Jefferson counties are in Phase 2, under which businesses must limit retail restaurant customers, and non-household social gatherings must be limited to fewer than five people.
Phase 1 has the tightest restrictions.
“Even if we were at Phase 1, school can go forward, but we need this kind of stringent work,” Unthank said.
“I do think school in some form or another can happen regardless of the phases.”
WEA doesn’t support reopening
The Washington Education Association said last week that WEA leaders do not support opening schools for in-person classes this fall.
“We know that in-person teaching and learning is best for both students and educators, and educators want nothing more than to get back into schools with our students,” the association said in a press release.
“The reality is that, with very few exceptions, we are nowhere close to containing the spread of this virus and nowhere close to being able to guarantee the health and safety of our students, educators, families, and communities. Therefore, we cannot responsibly support a return to school buildings for in-person learning this fall.
“We call on Governor Inslee to continue leading with science and safety and declare that schools will open remotely this fall.”
Transmission among youths
Of 74 COVID-19 cases reported in Clallam County as of Thursday, July 23, 27 were recorded in the past two weeks, according to county statistics made available to the public that do not provide specific ages or occupations, or locations, cities or regions of origin.
Sixteen cases were listed as 0-19 years old, half of which were reported in the past two weeks. Fourteen of the total were in their 20s, and 10 were in their 30s, giving the 0-39 age group in Clallam County the largest number of cases.
A broad-based South Korean study published July 16 and posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website showed children younger than 10 transmit the virus less frequently than adults, but that those between 10-19 transmit the virus as frequently as adults.
The source of increased cases in Clallam County is primarily people not following rules for social gatherings, Unthank said.
“If there is anything we can do to encourage or even enforce that gathering rule, I think it might actually make a difference,” she said.
Mark Ozias, the Clallam County commissioners’ chairman and a board of health member, wondered if any benefit would ensue from asking Sheriff Bill Benedict to reconsider enforcing statewide mandates imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee to stop the spread of the virus.
County Commissioner and health board member Randy Johnson quickly responded.
“I wonder how enforceable that would be,” Johnson said. “I would doubt very much at all.”
The county has a $40,000 publicity campaign to get the word out on the restrictions, Ozias said later.
Ozias said he will follow up with Benedict and Unthank “to see if there is any additional action that might be worth considering in support of doing everything we can to put ourselves in a position to be able to open up schools in the fall.”
State face mask mandates are “not a mandate for law enforcement to detain, cite or arrest violators,” Benedict said July 23.
He and his deputies will, and have, let non-mask-wearers know they should be wearing face coverings and will break up public get-togethers that exceed the limit, he said.
He added that July Fourth gatherings of more than five people were on private property, which he could not enter without a warrant.
“I’m not sure I want to do that,” he said.
Unthank said some employers are urging their workers to follow guidelines they adhere to at their workplace when they are off work because attending large social gatherings endangers their colleagues.
The more people party, “the more we endanger our ability to get our kids back to school and our ability to operate more businesses, which we’ve been trying really hard to do,” Unthank said.
Sequim Gazette editor Michael Dashiell contributed to this report.