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School in Ellensburg may change to in-person if the county COVID-19 count remains steady. According to the Kittitas County Incident Management Team, the COVID-19 rate is below 25 case per 100,000, which is the IMT recommended limit to start in-person education.

The first day of school in ESD was held online on Wednesday, following the county recommendation from early August. In the school board meeting the same day, Superintendent Jinger Haberer said it was exciting to start school again, even though they didn’t get to see all the students in-person.

“We are very eager to have our students back in the classroom,” Haberer said. “We understand that the overall infection rate here in Kittitas County is low, and we are thankful for that.”

However, Ellensburg is a college town, and now that Central Washington University has resumed classes, college students are returning to Ellensburg from across the nation. This raises the threat of an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the county.

The county has suggested schools wait and see if the number of cases increases with the arrival of college students, before resuming in-person education. This is a suggestion the ESD board is taking seriously.

“We want to make sure the infection rate doesn’t spike back up again,” Haberer said. “We have seen that in other college towns when the university opens up. In some places there has been community spread as a result.”

Haberer said despite this, the district is “gearing up” to return to in-person education. The district is going to wait until at least the end of September, but if the rates remain low, a return to in-person learning is possible.

“One of our primary concerns is the health and safety of our students and faculty/staff,” board member Dan Shissler said. “So, we are being very cautious about opening. We have all gotten phone calls and emails from people wanting to get started with face-to-face instruction. It’s just scary right now to do that, I’ve looked around the country, so far this year, this fall 850 schools have opened and then closed because of COVID.”

Shissler said all it takes is one student to get infected to pass it through the rest of the school. This would force the school into two weeks confinement and shuts down the entire school.

This would force the school back to fully online learning and endanger the health of students, staff and the Ellensburg community.

“It’s not worth it for us right now, especially with Central coming back and starting their year,” Shissler said. “And then a week from now we might have to shut it all down.”

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Board member Jason White said safety is the district’s No. 1 priority, but he wants to represent the community. Many community members want to return to in-person learning, and White said most of those who don’t, have signed up for the Virtual Academy, the district’s fully online learning model.

“This is that time where we all have to trust each other, and I think Jinger is doing that, I just think I just have to speak for the community when I say, we have to get these kids back into school,” White said. “I know you are doing everything you can.”

White said he hopes the community will continue to social distance and wear masks, so the county can keep the cases low, and students can return to school.

One positive factor Haberer sees in waiting to return to in-person learning is teachers becoming more familiar with their remote education platforms, Schoology and Edgenuity. Even when in-person learning resumes, ESD will be using a hybrid model, which means there will still be a large need for these online programs.

“We need to be ready to go very smoothly and transition in between online learning and hybrid or in-person,” Haberer said.

Haberer said the issue of returning to in-person learning will be continued in depth at the next board meeting Sept 23.

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