Tacoma kids are headed back to school. Is the district prepared to keep them COVID free?

Tacoma kids are headed back to school. Is the district prepared to keep them COVID free?
Mary Lyon Elementary will join other Tacoma public schools in welcoming back kindergartners for in-person instruction Jan. 19. “We all feel confident we can do this and keep kids safe,” said principal Anita Roth. (Drew Perine, The News Tribune)

TACOMA, Wash. — Sitting at a desk in a classroom at Mary Lyon Elementary on Tuesday, fourth grader Tristan Hopkins said he prefers to learn at school rather than at home.

He got straight to the point.

“I hate this coronavirus, and I just want to be in normal school,” he said.

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Hopkins is one of about 20 students currently attending school in-person at Mary Lyon Elementary in Tacoma.

Tacoma Public Schools has been operating schools since October for more than 700 students needing special education services, in accordance with state COVID-19 guidelines.

Now, the district is preparing for a new group to arrive: kindergarten students.

TPS announced in December kindergarten students would return for face-to-face instruction starting Jan. 19 in cohorts of up to 15 students. Preschool students will return on Jan. 25 and first and second graders on Feb. 8. The district said it expects to announce plans to phase in grades 3-5 in early 2021.

As for middle and high school students, the district said it is in the process of making recommendations for middle and high school and hopes to finalize those plans soon.

Kindergarten students will attend two days a week. In February, that will shift to four days a week if COVID-19 case counts drop below 350 cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period.

Changes to state guidance in December lowered the threshold for schools to return to in-person learning. High COVID-19 activity now is defined as a county having 350 or more COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period, rather than 75 cases.

High-activity counties can phase in in-person learning in groups of 15 or fewer students for pre-K through grade 5 and students with highest needs. The state recognized that national and statewide data showed that while cases and outbreaks do occur in schools, transmission of COVID-19 has been “limited in the school setting.”

Pierce County is a high-activity county at 399.2 cases per 100,000 people as of six days ago, according to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. The six-day lag allows for accuracy.

The district said it used a number of factors when developing its reopening plans, including revised guidance from the state Department of Health and OSPI around in-person learning and the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in school environments.

“That guidance is based on experience nationally over the last few months that shows when students and staff follow safety protocols, such as wearing a face covering, washing hands regularly and staying six feet apart, transmission of COVID-19 in schools is limited,” Nora Doyle, facilities communications coordinator for the district, said in an email.

Some parents and teachers don’t agree with the plan and feel the return is rushed as COVID-19 cases swell in Pierce County.

Families in Tacoma want to know — what precautions is the district taking to keep students and staff safe?

ARRIVING AT SCHOOL

Tacoma Public Schools showed The News Tribune on Tuesday what precautions are being taken for students already learning on-site.

On a typical school day at Mary Lyon, precautions start before students arrive.

Every student, staff member and visitor is required to fill out a health survey every day before arriving on campus. Parents can fill out the survey through the district’s Family App or can submit a paper copy.

School staff is notified when a survey is filled out, and when students arrive at school by bus or dropped off by a parent, they are lined up six feet apart — using measured paw print stickers on the floor — and can proceed to class.

Anita Roth, principal at Lyon and the school’s COVID-19 supervisor (each school has one), said students who have not filled out their survey have their temperatures taken and recorded.

“And then those students ... are then sent to a waiting room where their parents are called to finish the screening process,” Roth said. When the process is completed, they can join their class.

Each Tacoma school has its own plans for drop-off and pickup, depending on the design and flow of each unique school building, according to the district. Entries are monitored by administrators, paraeducators or teachers.

IN THE CLASSROOM

Inside classrooms, children are spaced on opposite ends of desks to accommodate social distancing.

Teacher Angela Vanderlinda, who has been preparing for weeks to see her kindergarten students at school again, placed numbered stickers on the floor that are separated by 6 feet.

Vanderlinda is lucky. Her classroom has a collapsible glass wall that provides for extra space for her students to spread out.

Not all of Tacoma’s elementary schools are as new and flexible as Mary Lyon. Other schools are using unoccupied spaces — gyms, libraries and conjoined classrooms — for extra space.

Even with all the preparations, Vanderlinda said it’s not going to be easy, but she believes in the systems she has in place.

“There might be some bumps in the road of reminding a child, ‘Oh, you’re too close,’ but doing that in a gentle manner,” she said.

Marty Lund is a special education teacher for kindergarten through first grade students with autism. His classroom looks a bit different due to the needs of his students. They are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.

Lund says he keeps specific clothing, like jackets, at school instead of bringing them back and forth from home. He also wears additional protective equipment during class to keep himself safe, such as a face shield.

According to state guidance, teachers in a general classroom setting are low risk and can wear cloth face coverings. Students should bring their own face coverings, but can be provided one by the district.

Since March, Tacoma Public Schools has purchased about $1.15 million in personal protective equipment, including 110,000 surgical masks, 2,500 thermometers, 20,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, 3,000 disposable gowns and 35,000 N95 masks. Of the $1.15 million, about $250,000 of that was at the direct cost to the district, while the rest was funded Pierce County Emergency Management.

“There might be some bumps in the road of reminding a child, ‘Oh, you’re too close,’ but doing that in a gentle manner,” she said.

Marty Lund is a special education teacher for kindergarten through first grade students with autism. His classroom looks a bit different due to the needs of his students. They are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.

Lund says he keeps specific clothing, like jackets, at school instead of bringing them back and forth from home. He also wears additional protective equipment during class to keep himself safe, such as a face shield.

According to state guidance, teachers in a general classroom setting are low risk and can wear cloth face coverings. Students should bring their own face coverings, but can be provided one by the district.

Since March, Tacoma Public Schools has purchased about $1.15 million in personal protective equipment, including 110,000 surgical masks, 2,500 thermometers, 20,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, 3,000 disposable gowns and 35,000 N95 masks. Of the $1.15 million, about $250,000 of that was at the direct cost to the district, while the rest was funded Pierce County Emergency Management.

Meal time for students depends on the school, according to the district, but they will eat together in groups on their in-person learning days, either in their classroom or another location. On remote learning days, students can still receive lunches from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at Baker, First Creek, Giaudrone, Gray, Jason Lee, Mason, Meeker, Stewart, Truman and Wainwright schools, as well as scheduled stops on 33 routes.

At Mary Lyon, students can go outside for recess but must remain in their classroom groups and use a specific bag of recess toys designated for their class. Students will be supervised by the principal and para-educators.

“If they want to take the mask off, we’re going to work with them to stay six feet apart,” Roth said. “But if they’re wanting to play close with us, they put their masks on.”

PE AND MUSIC

Some parts of learning, including music and physical education, will remain remote in some locations.

“Specialists have been concerned about hybrid and remote instruction since the beginning of the planning stages in the summer,” according to a letter posted to the tacomaspecialists.org page on Jan. 6.

The letter outlines concerns by specialists that, with cohorts, students might need instruction in PE and music on days when their specialists are not scheduled at their school. Specialists — music teachers, librarians and PE teachers — often split work between various schools, especially in elementary.

“This is NOT an effective use of anyone’s time and energy,” the letter states.

Specialists instead say music and PE classes should be scheduled on days when students are remote learning at home, so they can fully participate.

“It’s the district’s turn to be flexible,” the letter said. “Give specialists time and flexibility to move their schedules around to make students’ educational experiences better.”

When asked if this is possible, the district said that it depends on individuals schools.

“If individual schools can make that work with their schedules, yes, specialists can run their classes on students’ learning days at home,” Doyle said in an email.

WHAT HAPPENS IF…

Each school also has a plan in place in case a student begins exhibiting symptoms they are sick.

“If you are showing signs of runny nose, sore throat, nausea, fever, things like that, we put you in the isolation room,” Roth said.

At Lyon, the isolation room is located near the main office, with windows for staff to monitor inside. Staff that need to go inside are equipped with full PPE, Roth said.

If there’s a positive COVID-19 case at the school, a 14-day quarantine is required for those who have been exposed.

“If we have a positive case, we contact our District Health Services Director, and from there we work with her and the health department to identify who the person, adult or child, has been in contact with and make a list of folks who need to go into quarantine,” Roth explained.

The district says it is in frequent contact with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, and reports COVID-19 cases and outbreaks per school on its website.

About 50 positive COVID-19 cases have been reported on the district’s website since October. About 20 of those cases required others to be quarantined.

If a parent is uncomfortable with sending children back to school in-person, the district said that they can join the wait list for Tacoma Online, an all-virtual platform for Tacoma Public Schools students. Students can also work with their schools to watch live or recorded TPS TV School, a series of 45-minute lessons taught by two Tacoma teachers for grades K-3.

VACCINATIONS

Starting in February, K-12 teachers and staff who are over 50 years old can receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to state health officials.

School nurses, assistant nurses and health clerks at TPS can receive their vaccinations, and the district said it’s working with the health department to see if it can prioritize occupational and physical therapists for vaccinations.

Teachers and district officials have expressed their desire to have it available for all staff, and soon.

This week, Pierce County superintendents signed onto a letter to Tacoma-Pierce County health director Dr. Anthony Chen, requesting assistance to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for all K-12 educators and district staff.

“We believe that the vaccination phases provided by the Governor and Department of Health are too rigid and lack important local decision-making authorities needed to bring our essential school staff workers back to the congregate in-person classroom setting,” states the letter, which is also signed by Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno. “Simply stated, the current tiers do not provide the flexibility needed to guarantee that the right school staff people are receiving the vaccine first.”

The superintendents propose a coordinated effort to create a vaccine distribution method for schools districts “as soon as possible.”

Ergun worries of risks of COVID-19 for staff and students. In an email to The News Tribune, she said the plans are not clear enough.

“TEA would much prefer to see the District delay the expansion of in-person instruction so that case rates are on a downward trajectory, clear systems are in place to provide robust instruction in all content areas while keeping students safe and healthy, and the adults who have some of the highest risks when supporting students in-person have access to the vaccine before being required to interact face-to-face,” she said.

CONCERNS FROM PARENTS

Alycia Melendez is a parent of two elementary students that attend Bryant Montessori and worries that students and teachers aren’t ready to return.

“We miss being in school in person but it is not safe yet,” Melendez wrote in an email to district leaders. “... Please do not force our family to disenroll two students from TPS by not allowing us to continue with remote learning in the middle of a new variant and surge. We have MANY questions about how TPS will safely bring students back right now, and they have not been adequately or transparently addressed.”

Even with the precautions, some feel the risk is too high.

Kelsey Parkhurst has a first grader at Bryant and said she won’t be going back to school until more people are vaccinated and until new COVID-19 cases in Pierce County are below what they were when schools first started closing in March.

“The unforeseen consequences of contracting and spreading covid by returning to school before it is safe are just too high,” Parkhurst said. “The virus affects everyone differently, and has already killed so many Americans.”

Chuck Mildes has a different view. A father of two TPS students, he expressed his frustration in an email over what he sees as a lack of proactivity from the district to get students back in the classroom.

Mildes pointed to other districts that have already reopened for in-person learning and said at this point, there has been ample time for districts to come up with creative solutions.

“In the meantime, kids are failing at an appalling rate, teachers are at their wits end trying to figure out the garbage ‘virtual learning platform’ that was dumped on them and parents are left holding the bag,” Mildes said.

‘ALLOW GRACE’

Cameil Christie, a special education teacher at Lyon, has also been working with her students on site for weeks. When asked if she has advice for teachers and parents getting ready to return, she encouraged everyone to be graceful with one another.

“This is new territory for all of us,” she said. “Even though we’re several months into the pandemic, everything changes at a moment’s notice.”

When his students returned to school in person, Lund said, they bounced back.

“They’re so resilient,” he said. “There’s such an amazing group, watching them play again on the playground, it just, it almost brought me to tears several times, it made me so happy to see the joy on their faces.

“And this is a self contained autism (class). So we don’t often see our kids respond to each other with joy, if it’s a typical thing, you might not catch how excited they are to see one another. But we really saw it in those first few weeks.”

Vanderlinda said she’s excited to see her students.

“I think when you set expectations, it is amazing what children can do. Absolutely amazing,” she said.