School Social Distancing (copy)

Chemistry teacher Clayton Hudiburg addresses students on the first day of in-person classes at Walla Walla High School for all grades, March 10, 2021.

Walla Walla elementary and middle school students will return to full-day, in-person instruction this spring. High school students will have to wait until fall to return to full days.

Though no vote was taken, all five Walla Walla Public Schools board members were all in favor of directing Superintendent Wade Smith to prepare elementary and middle schools to resume full days by the end of the April.

Four of the five supported holding off on high school students until September after a presentation by Smith indicated that transitioning these students would be harder than younger students.

Director Eric Rindal was the lone board member to vouch for transitioning high school students as well.

The decision came after a nearly two hour and 15 minute special board meeting that included Smith’s presentation and discussion among Smith and the board members.

Increased capacity in schools is possible after Gov. Jay Inslee reduced the distance students have to sit apart from each other from 6 feet to 3 feet.

The new standard will allow many students across the state to return to full days. But Smith’s presentation showed that even distancing students 3 feet apart would be difficult at Walla Walla High School.

Construction underway has about half the school’s buildings out of commission. Smith pointed out that the work was planned well before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“The construction has nothing to do with the pandemic,” Smith said. “We would without the same buildings either way.”

The school has about 55 classes with more than 30 students, Smith said. Most of the available classrooms hold only 25 to 27 students at 3 feet apart.

Still, Smith said the district would find a way if the board decided to go that route.

“Anything is possible,” Smith told the board. “We can make any of this work. But I do have to be clear that we do have a much bigger challenge in capacity at the high school.”

Smith said substitute teachers could be used to break classes into smaller groups.

This would mean big changes in schedules and teachers for many high school students very close to the end of the school year.

Board members considered the idea, but ultimately decided these changes would be a larger obstacle for students than remaining in a hybrid schedule.

The amount of class time remaining in the school year after a would-be transition was important to consider, school board President Derek Sarley said.

“We might looking at six weeks for some of the seniors,” he said. “Is it worth doing all of this for those six weeks? Do we think that’s what’s going to close the gap?

The board did direct Smith to explore full-day opportunities for high school students struggling in the hybrid schedule, and to provide extra support to students who need it.

Transitioning younger students will be easier, but it will still take a bit of planning, Smith said. He thinks the district can be ready for the transition by the last week of April.

That would allow time to develop plans and communicate with families.

“If we try to squeeze it any sooner than that, I think we’re going to compromise our practitioner engagement and we’re going to compromise parent communication and coordination,” Smith said. “I don’t think we want to compromise those. So I think the 26th through the 30th is about the soonest we can make this transition.”

The school board also discussed changes to its preschool program.

Preschool students will continue in half-day sessions. In addition, the district will implement full-day, on-site opportunities for specific families that need it.

Jeremy Burnham can be reached at jeremyburnham@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Reporter

Jeremy covers education, as well as Dayton and Columbia County, for the Union-Bulletin. He graduated from Eastern Washington University in 2019 with a degree in journalism.