School district grapples with health guideline

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The Whatcom County Health Department revised its recommendations  on November 18 surrounding phasing students into middle and high schools, leaving the Blaine school district scrambling as sixth and ninth graders were scheduled to return Monday after Thanksgiving.

In a letter to county superintendents, Whatcom County health officer Dr. Greg Stern recommended the county’s seven school districts pause adding older students to the buildings, unless they are special needs students or struggling in online classes. Elementary schools are exempt from this pause.

“Transmission of virus by the older students is similar to adults and their class schedules are not conducive to limiting the number of other students and teachers with which they have contact,” the letter reads. “Elementary school students can be grouped in small cohorts and limit their number of staff and student contacts, and they are less efficient in transmitting infection than older children and adults.”

Blaine Elementary School phased in its remaining students, fourth and fifth grade, on November 23. Currently, 325 students are in district buildings per week but Granger said this number is fluctuating as more parents opt for fully remote learning as Covid-19 cases rise. About 20 percent of students with the option are in online-only classes, he said. 

The most recent letter to superintendents changes the advice given in October 12 and August 31 letters that encouraged schools to take a cautious, phased approach to in-person learning. Dr. Stern wrote that the county’s growing Covid-19 cases, which are in the state Department of Health’s moderate category for school activity, could eventually rise to levels high enough to reduce in-person learning only to students furthest from educational justice. This includes students with learning disabilities, those experiencing homelessness and young learners, according to state Department of Health guidelines.

During the November 23 school district meeting, Granger advocated having the district follow the health department’s recommendation and, depending on Covid-19 cases after Thanksgiving, consider phasing in the older students December 7. He cited the district being both an educator and employer that needed to uphold its promise to protect teachers and staff.

Blaine Education Association (BEA) president Dan Persse said 130 of 148 BEA members had replied to a survey he sent asking if the district should introduce sixth and ninth grades to campus on November 30. Thirty-one percent, or 40 members, said yes, while 65 percent, or 84 members said no, he said.

Persse also read part of the August 20 Memorandum of Understanding, where the district promised the union it would follow health department recommendations. 

Board vice president Laura McKinney expressed opposition to the guidance, saying she felt the health department was not looking at the comprehensive picture and parents weren’t given a large enough voice in the decision.

“As a parent I will tell you we’re letting them down, we’re failing the kids because we’re caught up in bureaucracy and being too afraid to stand up for what we know is right,” McKinney said during the meeting, later adding, “When I’m called to account, I’d much rather be accounting for violating the health department order than accounting for having lost one of our kids to suicide. That’s where my mind is.”

Other board members, including president Charles Gibson and member Dougal Thomas, also shared frustration with hearing contradictory guidance for schools.

Granger said he’d been in constant communication with the health department since November 18, working to find a way to allow the older students to return to the building with compromises like keeping students in cohorts or rotating teachers in classrooms.

Granger disputed the letter that said school districts and private schools have the ultimate decision if they accept the health department’s recommendation.

Board members decided to hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. on November 24 to consult with the district’s attorney to get legal clarity on gray area such as differentiating between an order, mandate and recommendation.  

During the November 24 special meeting, board members met in executive session before unanimously voting on a motion to support the superintendent’s recommendation to pause phasing in students until December 7.

“My recommendation is that we follow the Whatcom County Health Department to pause the phase in of sixth grade students and above for one week to give me some time to continue to work with Dr. Stern to try to land on a plan that they will give their blessing to with hopes of returning some of those students, if not all, on December 7,” Granger said during the November 24 special meeting. “This gives me a week’s time to see what the case numbers do and work with them.” 

Granger said the district would release a message to the public and issue a message to the health department on November 25.

This article has been updated to include information on the district's November 24 special meeting. 

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