In the face of a continued rise in COVID-19 cases in the region, Garfield and Palouse schools voted unanimously Thursday evening to begin the fall semester online.

The 10-person joint board that oversees the two districts approved the plan on the recommendation of Palouse Superintendent Calvin Johnson, Garfield Superintendent Zane Wells and the Whitman County Department of Health.

The move follows a Tuesday news release from the department recommending all high schools and middle schools in the county deliver classes through distance-learning strategies in the fall.

Citing “recent, current and projected COVID-19 activity,” the department recommended secondary schools in the county as well as elementary schools in Pullman, Colfax and Palouse begin the year online.

“We would go online and it would be K-12 for us because they specifically listed that our towns’ elementaries should be online also,” Johnson said. “We would be strictly online at this point.”

Earlier this week, Johnson said the joint board also voted to delay the first day of school to Sept. 2.

He said the plan is to begin the year online with the hope of shifting to face-to-face instruction later in the semester so long as disease trends improve. He said most everyone involved, including teachers, parents, students and administrators are eager to return to in-person classes if it can be done safely.

“We’ll certainly monitor it very closely -- just like anyone else in the situation, we want our kids back and we want them in school,” Wells agreed. “We’re gonna try to get them in here as soon as possible … that’s the way that we’re set up to do school, that’s the way that we do it best and that’s why we’re here, because we want our kids here.”

Despite the recommendation from Whitman County Public Health, Colton Superintendent Paul Clark said his district still plans to return to face-to-face classes on its original Aug. 31 start date.

Clark said the recommendation from local health authorities was taken seriously but stressed that because of its size, the Colton School District remains in a good position to resume in-person instruction. He said in a normal year, Colton facilities have the capacity for twice the number of students in the district.

“Our entire middle school is 32 kids and our entire high school is 42 kids,” Clark said. “While (the recommendation) certainly has affected us … at this moment right now we are definitely hoping and planning upon providing families the option to return in-person in K-12 or doing distance learning.”

Clark said the district has prepared enhanced sanitization protocols and will enforce mask wearing in accordance with statewide public health mandates. He said they are also working to ensure there is an online option for students and families that would prefer not to attend school in person.

Clark said he will present a reopening plan to his board in a meeting Sunday.

Officials with the Colfax School District did not respond to requests for comment and no draft reopening plan has been made available online. The Colfax School Board is scheduled to discuss and consider approval of a reopening plan in a special meeting 6 p.m. Monday, according to an agenda posted to the district website. The Pullman School Board voted Wednesday evening to start the fall semester for all grade levels online.

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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