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Social distancing, masks are biggest challenges to re-opening schools

Social distancing, masks are biggest challenges to re-opening schools

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As schools grapple with re-opening plans, officials say there’s one thing getting them through the uncertain process: excitement to be back in school.

But to get there, questions about social distancing, mask wearing and enrollment have to be dealt with first. And there will be opposition to masks and even to attending school, educators say.

“(The plan is) going to change 100 times, but ... I think the social distancing and the masks are going to be the biggest concerns moving forward,” Castle Rock Superintendent Ryan Greene said.

Enrollment is also an “unknown factor,” Greene said.

Surveys from most local school districts showed strong parent preference to have students back in school, but a little under 10% of Toutle parents said they didn’t want their child back in school, Toutle Lake Superintendent Bob Garrett said.

“We’re going to have some students and their families choose to have their student stay at home this next school year,” he said. “We’re hoping it’s not a very significant number of kids, but it might be. We have to be prepared.”

Enrollment is a double-edged sword, Garrett said, because if 10% of students don’t return to the building, there might be enough space to have the rest of the students socially distanced inside. His district is measuring classrooms and looking at alternative spaces to host students.

However, the decline in enrollment could also hurt the school’s finances, as state funding is tied to enrollment, he said.

Current state guidelines require six feet of distance around each child. While districts said that they didn’t anticipate much of a problem getting elementary students back in the classroom, higher class levels tend to have larger class sizes.

That might mean alternating schedules, Woodland Superintendent Michael Green said, bringing half the kids in on a given day. Or, Woodland families may choose to take advantage of existing alternative education programs, which would help ease the space crunch.

“In an ideal world we would have all of our students back all the time, but the state has very strict rules as far as social distancing that were predicated on some erroneous assumptions about classroom size and how many kids you could fit,” Green said. “With the exception of kindergarten through third it’s very difficult to fit all of our students into any of our teaching spaces.”

However, new research from the American Pediatric Association is suggesting that less than 6 feet of distance can be effective when paired with masks, Green, Garrett and Greene said.

They’re hoping the state changes the six-foot guideline, just like it adjusted bussing guidelines to allow more than 13 students on a bus at the same time.

“Other countries are going three feet, a meter, and if we can get down to four feet or five feet then it changes the ballgame,” Castle Rock’s Greene said. “Then we can fit almost every kid back in school.”

Lori Byrnes, Kalama Education Association president, said the changing guidelines can confuse parents and students and create more challenges.

“I feel there are a lot of contradictions in the expectations,” she said. “For example, it’s okay for kids to be on the bus or in the halls, but once in the classroom the spacing kicks into play. That will be a hard sell to the students.”

And just as mask-wearing has become a hot-button topic out of school, Greene said it would be the same in school.

“We have the spectrum. We have parents saying, ‘I will not send my kid unless they have a mask,’ and parents saying, ‘I will not send my kid if you make them wear a mask,’ ” Greene said.

Garrett said it would take more conversations with parents who don’t want their children to wear masks to find a solution, as the state is mandating mask wearing by staff and students.

Masks don’t just protect students, Greene said. Staff and teachers also need to stay safe. And while the state issued guidance that any employee in a high-risk category should be accommodated, there still need to be teachers in classrooms.

Byrnes said Kalama is looking at matching teachers who don’t want to return to the classroom with the students who would prefer to stay online.

“Teachers feel very strongly that in-person learning is the best way to teach students, but the health and safety of students and staff is the most important thing,” she said. “Working to balance those is the challenge.”

She said that while small districts have fewer students to schedule, an added challenge is that teachers tend to already be filling several roles.

“This is creating even more roles. We need people to work on different aspects (of the plan) and we’re already stretched very thin,” she said.

Districts are also trying to address technology access, medical exemptions and communicating the fluid plans to the community, the superintendents said.

“There are just so many operational things, from how we’re serving breakfast and lunch to dropping off kids and picking them up,” Green said. “There are just tendrils everywhere.”

But for now, Garrett said districts will keep making plans, even though the uncertainty can be frustrating.

“I have a passion for helping kids succeed so you have to remember the big scope and picture here,” he said.

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