WWPS district office

Walla Walla school leaders Tuesday night indicated that the district will try to start phasing in its youngest students to a morning/afternoon schedule as soon as Jan. 25.

Before that happens, however, the district must come to a final agreement with the Walla Walla Valley Education Association, the union representing Walla Walla’s teachers.

As Tuesday night’s school board meeting, a deal had not been reached.

“We continue to work collaboratively with the district toward making progress on these issues,” WWVEA President Keith Swanson said. “We are optimistic that those details will be resolved.”

He did not comment on what sticking points there might be.

Superintendent Wade Smith laid out a new potential roadmap on how a return to classroom teaching would work. It mostly follows the guidance provided Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal.

The district intends to use combined COVID-19 case numbers of Walla Walla and College Place when making its decisions.

The new state guidance encourages schools to begin phasing in students, even in areas with COVID-19 case rates considered to be high, meaning more than 350 cases per 100,000 residents are reported over a 14-day period.

For Walla Walla and College Place combined, that number comes to about 200, which is what the district will use.

In the latest two-week period tracked by the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health, the two cities’ combined case count was 344.

The district has identified three stages of reopening while it is in the high case category.

The first step, which Superintendent Wade Smith said could happen before Jan. 25, involves bringing back students with special needs in groups of no more than five students per classroom.

Students in hands-on technical courses, such as those taught at SEAtech Skills Center, would also be able to attend in small groups during phase one.

Additionally, a limited number of struggling middle and high school students will be able to participate in their distance learning onsite supervised by classified staff.

Phase two would bring pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners back in a hybrid schedule.

Finally phase three would bring back all K-5 students to an a.m./p.m. schedule. This is the phase district leaders are targeting for Jan. 25.

All of these phases may occur while the district is in the “high” case count category.

Older students would not come back until cases drop. Once they drop to fewer than 200 in Walla Walla and College Place, students in grades 6-8 would return. High schoolers would return when the case count drops below 115 over a 14-day period.

School board President Derek Sarley said he knows there will be some people who think this plan is moving too fast and others who think it is too slow.

“There is scarcely a place in our modern, win-at-all-costs politics for the role school boards are supposed to fill,” Sarley said in an email. “It is not our job to take sides or to push singular agendas.

“We are called upon to represent the entire community, which means listening to all stakeholders — students, parents, staff and other community members — and then synthesizing those sometimes divergent perspectives into a path forward that balances and respects all views,” he said.

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


Jeremy Burnham covers education and Columbia County for the Union-Bulletin. He is a recent graduate of Eastern Washington University, where he studied journalism, and is an Eastern Eagle fanatic.