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Community spread of COVID-19 is 'more likely' now in Spokane schools, interim health officer says

A SRHD spokesperson said the governor’s roll back did not impact local decision-making for transitioning students to in-person learning.

SPOKANE, Wash — The Spokane Regional Health District is continuing to support the return of early learners to in-person classes but recommends a pause on a transition for older students despite high number of cases in the community.

The support comes just days after Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced new statewide restrictions to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which include closing indoor service for restaurants and bars and prohibiting indoor social gatherings.

According to SRHD Spokesperson Kelli Hawkins, the health district works closely with school district administration to give recommendations, support and contingency planning.  

"Because we're in daily conversations almost with the schools," said Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velazquez during a press briefing Wednesday morning. "I think the issue is not necessarily the school itself, I think the issue is the high numbers in the community and the fact that staff, teachers, families, relatives, friends are also in the community." 

"So the likelihood that the numbers will increase from the community to schools are much higher now than they were before. And we've seen a number of cases in schools that are not actually community related," Velazquez added.

Velazquez said they have seen some cases in schools that are not community related as well.

"There just so many variables that are being taken into consideration when we look at any of these steps," he said. "And there's so much data gathering so much intelligence, so much really great information that the schools bring that we bring to the table that we compare that we get from experts and we get from the schools to make those decisions." 

Hawkins said the governor’s rollback did not impact local decision-making for transitioning students to in-person learning.

“Our recommendations continue to be in favor of allowing early learners (preK-2) to convert to in-person school. School districts within Spokane County have already put in place plans to proceed with this transition,” Hawkins said.

However, Hawkins said the health district recommends a pause on transitioning older grades who are not already attending in-person as of 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 16.

“By removing children from in-person learning, they do not receive the benefits that come with interacting with their peers or teachers in person,” Hawkins said. “The outcomes of this are far reaching, affecting potential academic disparities, children’s mental well-being, and unfortunately in some cases, child safety and food security."

"SRHD officials take these factors into consideration when determining guidance for opening up the community further or making recommendations to our school districts. Decisions pertaining to a return to in-person learning must balance the associated benefits against the potential risks of COVID-19 exposure," Hawkins added. 

Velazquez regularly meets with school administrators to share recommendations and to continue monitoring the data is it pertains to in-school exposure, Hawkins said.

Velazquez said the health district does not make the school district's plans. They can only provide guidance to districts.

Spokane Public Schools will bring second-graders back to classrooms on Nov. 30.

Other districts have modified their plans following COVID-19 outbreaks within their staff.

East Valley, West Valley and Mead School Districts changed their learning models last week.

East Valley made the decision to transition to virtual learning on Monday, Nov. 16 due to an increase in COVID-19 related absences within the district.

The West Valley School District said Monday they are suspending plans to bring fourth and fifth grade students due to guidance from the Spokane Regional Health District.

The Mead School District will begin virtual learning on Fridays starting Dec. 4 for middle and high school students. The district said on its website that the decision was made following feedback gained in district-wide surveys for teachers and families and focus groups with staff.

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