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Yelm school employees prepare laptops for students to pick up in this photo taken last April. 

After almost a month of remote instruction for Thurston County students, Health Officer Dr. Dimyana Abdelmalek on Wednesday morning gave the OK for public school superintendents to begin a “slow, careful, phased approach” to resume in-person instruction, starting with high-needs students.

In a letter published and sent to county school superintendents, Abdelmalek wrote that she is now recommending the change due to the improving situation surrounding new cases and the spread of COVID-19.

Case loads in recent weeks have seen a sharp decline, though deaths and hospitalizations remain steady. The week of Sept. 14-20, the county recorded 41 new cases, which is the lowest it had been since late June.

“People in our community are making great efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 by wearing face coverings, maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet or more with non-household members, limiting their gatherings to less than 10 people, and frequently washing their hands,” she wrote in a news release detailing the announcement.

“I want to commend the residents in our county for following these preventative measures because the data i have seen shows these efforts are working.”

As schools reopen, teachers and staff are required to implement safety protocols, communication plans and coordination with Thurston County Public Health and Social Services. Districts are also required to follow school year guidance published by the Department of Health, which was published in August.

Whether or not schools are recommended to go back to school depends on their rates of transmission. According to a “decision tree” published by the state Department of Health, transmission rates are considered “high” when a county experiences 75 or more cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days, “moderate” in case loads of about 25-75, and “low” in case loads below 25 cases per 100,000 residents.

As of Sept. 19, Thurston County’s transmission rate was at about 30.8 cases per 100,000 over the last two weeks, which is in the “moderate” level of community transmission.

Under this level, districts are recommended to maintain distance learning, though recommended to expand in-person learning for elementary students and implement hybrid models for middle and high schools if transmission rates remain low.

Abdelmalek wrote that when she originally chose to recommend back in late July school buildings remain closed for the first part of fall, “our cases had risen from less than 25 new cases per 100,000 people over two weeks at the beginning of July to 60.5 new cases per 100,000 people during a two-week period on July 29th. At that time, it appeared Thurston County was on track to exceed 75 cases per 100,000 population by the start of school.”

After allowing for an incubation period to pass following the Labor Day weekend with fear that cases might balloon in a similar fashion that the county and state saw following Fourth of July festivities, it became clear that the county had not experienced an increase related to these activities, she said.

Abdelmalek’s decision comes a few weeks after Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department recommended that kindergarten through fifth grade could resume in-person instruction again. Pierce County, as of Tuesday afternoon, was reporting 57.4 cases per 100,000 over the last two weeks, which puts them in the “moderate” category.

But as Thurston County begins a phased approach to resuming in-person learning, Abdelmalek admits there may be some challenges.

“As the year progresses, I anticipate there will be positive COVID-19 cases in our schools and there are plans for how to identify people who have been exposed to the virus and plans for how to stop the spread of the virus in a school setting,” she wrote. “If there is concern of an outbreak within a classroom or school, there may be an interruption of in-person learning to stop the spread of disease.”

Districts, in this case, will need to be flexible and be able to switch to remote learning swiftly. It’s also still possible for transmission rates to increase again.

“If our community transmission rates of COVID-19 increase at an alarming rate, I may require restrictions of in-person learning until transmission rates return to moderate or low levels,” Abdelmalek wrote. “I will monitor our key indicators to help guide me in my decision making.”

The metrics Abdelmalek says she’ll continue to examine include the 14-day case rate per 100,000, the percent-positive rate, the capacity of hospitals and intensive care units, trends in outbreaks and the county’s capacity for timely case investigation and contact tracing, according to Abdelmalek.

“Our entire community has a large role to play in keeping our schools open for in-person learning,” she added.

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