More Students Set to Return to Local Classrooms

Claudia Yaw, The Chronicle, Centralia, Wash.
·4 min read

Apr. 7—Droves of students in the area will replace more Zoom classes for face-to-face instruction, with several local schools announcing the expansion of in-person learning this month. The shift is spurred by schools' success in limiting transmission of COVID-19 as well as new, relaxed social distance guidelines for classrooms.

Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gov. Jay Inslee announced last month that educators could, in many cases, space students 3 feet apart rather than 6 feet.

For Toledo Superintendent Chris Rust, the announcement came as a relief.

"We've been lobbying the governor's office for quite a while to relax that social distance," Rust told his school board this week.

On Monday, the board gave administration approval to expand in-person learning to four full days a week for K-8 students starting April 26. To accommodate the increase in students, the district is purchasing more cafeteria tables and renting an outdoor pavilion.

"If conditions indicate, we are prepared to provide patio heaters as well," Rust wrote to families this month.

School districts across Lewis County are also planning on bringing more students back to classrooms this month. On April 19, the Adna School District will expand its in-person learning to four and a half days a week. Fridays are half days, Superintendent Jim Forrest said, to give some time to teachers, who will give up their own lunches to supervise cohorted lunch schedules.

Next Monday, Morton will do the same, meaning its hybrid schedule "will cease immediately for grades 1-12," according to a letter to the community. Students must choose to learn either fully on-site or fully remote.

Mossyrock — one of the first schools to bring kids back into classrooms last year — will also be able to accommodate more students thanks to the new distancing guidelines. This Monday, fourth graders will join the lower grades and 11th and 12th graders in four in-person days. The following week, all grades will be allowed to return for four in-person days a week. On April 19, the Centralia School District will do the same for K-6 students.

"We're excited about that, because that doubles the face-to-face instructional time," Centralia Superintendent Lisa Grant said.

Statewide, the vast majority of districts are offering some form of in-person learning. And 61 districts are back to traditional models, according to Department of Health data. On an average day, 43.4% of students statewide are receiving in-person instruction. According to local public health officials, transmission isn't being seen in schools.

But for Centralia, and other districts with larger student populations, space has proven to be a limiting factor, as some buildings simply aren't big enough to accommodate the entire student body while maintaining current social distancing guidelines.

And as vaccines become more available and transmission rates remain low — and perhaps as remote learning fatigue continues to weigh heavy — some families that opted to stick to virtual learning are now requesting to switch to the hybrid in-person schedule.

"Small districts have made it work. But districts our size are struggling," Grant said.

At Adna, for example, Forrest said the number of elementary students sticking to virtual schooling is in the single digits, yet spacing has not been an issue.

According to Grant, Centralia families were told that if they opted out of in-person learning, they would likely have to stick with virtual classes for the rest of the year. Throughout the district, that's about 20% of elementary-aged kids and 25% of older students.

There are some larger classes that might have to be held in the library or other unconventional spaces in order to maintain the spacing, Grant said. And besides the distancing challenge, switching back and forth between learning formats just isn't good for kids' education, she said.

While younger kids prepare to see their teachers and friends more often, Centralia has no immediate plans to expand in-person learning for grades 7-12, who can currently come into classrooms twice a week.

With older kids, educators are having more difficulty enforcing distancing requirements.

"Keeping them apart 3 feet, let alone 6 feet, has been a challenge," Grant said. "They're social. It's just developmental."

The result is districts across the county and state still straddling two forms of education: virtual and in-person. Toledo's decision to keep Fridays fully remote was partially to allow educators time to deliver lessons to those kids still learning exclusively online.