As the Pullman School District plans for a return to limited in-person instruction Jan. 4, there is some concern that a recent return to more stringent statewide COVID-19 restrictions may foreshadow further delays at a time when families are leaving for other districts.

Pullman Superintendent Bob Maxwell said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement of a return to statewide restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms and gatherings of more than five people does not apply to schools.

The school board on Nov. 4 approved a plan to shift from an online format to a hybrid form of instruction, starting with kindergarten and first grade, on Jan. 4, with higher grade levels added every couple of weeks.

In the meantime, Maxwell said the district has lost between 12 and 15 students to other nearby districts that do offer some face-to-face instruction in just the past week. While it is far from the first concern, he said each student lost means the district will not receive approximately $11,000 in state funds it would have received otherwise and it’s still too soon to be sure what kind of support will be available to help schools contending with such difficulties.

“I think we will recapture most of them — I’m not sure we’ll capture all, but I think most of them will probably return when we’re back in in-person learning, but I’m not sure,” Maxwell said. “Like anything, sometimes when people change they sometimes feel more comfortable in a new location.”

One such parent, Lacey Casqueiro, said in a school board meeting last week she recently pulled her students from Pullman schools and enrolled them in Jennings Elementary School in Colfax. She said she feels her children have already shown improvement with renewed access to face-to-face instruction.

“They have gone to three days of in-person school and I can say without a doubt that they’re healthier than they were last week,” she said.

Casqueiro said she understands prioritizing physical health but entreated district leaders to also consider the mental well-being of students. She joined a chorus of almost 30 parents, teachers and other community members calling for the district to return to in-person instruction earlier than Jan. 4. Many in attendance, including Franklin Elementary School Principal Stephanie Bray, made a similar request.

Bray spoke in favor of returning to school sooner rather than later, saying she’s become concerned students are suffering not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well — particularly as winter sets in. She said if students were to return earlier than Jan. 4, she is confident school sanitation protocols and prospective class sizes would still fall within the realm of safe practice. She noted the larger Spokane and Mead districts have been able to keep elementary classes to fewer than 10 students and said that would be possible in Pullman as well.

She said there are innumerable advantages to in-person instruction and for elementary students in particular, a form of supervised play has been shown to be essential for social-emotional development at a time when they’re primed to learn such lessons.

Until such instruction is allowed, Bray said leaders in Pullman schools are doing what they can to support students’ social and emotional health.

“What we’re doing, starting after Thanksgiving break, is allowing a time for kid connection for grade levels to meet up on Zoom so that at least there’s some social interaction,” Bray said. “We’re hoping to provide a little solace that they can actually meet at the grade level and just have a chance to connect and talk with their friends.”

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

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