As school districts on the Palouse begin their fall semesters, students, employees and visitors in Washington schools will be required by the state to mask up, but most districts in Latah County have declined to make masking mandatory.

Each school district in Latah and Whitman counties have committed to five-day, in-person instruction to start the school year.

The Moscow School District decided in late July it would require masks for at least the first three weeks of its school year, which starts Sept. 1. Meanwhile, masks will not be required in virtually every other public school district in the county.

Potlatch Superintendent Janet Avery said masks in her district will be recommended but not required, and schools in the Genesee, Whitepine, Troy and Kendrick-Juliaetta districts have adopted a similar stance.

“The feeling I’ve gotten from our patrons is mixed — some of them would prefer that we require masks, but a lot of the input I’m getting is they appreciate that we’re approaching things cautiously,” Avery said. “We are going to be following mitigation protocols with cleaning, and we’re going to be doing desk shields in the classrooms since we’re not requiring masks.”

With the exception of Moscow, most Latah County schools will operate within a “green, yellow, red” system, with plans to ratchet up health and safety measures, including requiring mask wearing, if infection rates worsen.

So long as local case numbers remain low and there is no evidence of community spread, schools will operate in the “green” phase of these plans with students attending school full-time, five days a week with few health and safety measures in place. Districts will move to the “yellow” stage of the plan if there is evidence of widespread or sustained community spread, which will also trigger a shift toward a hybrid style of instruction in which students will receive instruction through a combination of in-person and distance learning strategies.

In extreme cases, where large-scale community spread is evident, schools would close and shift to remote learning for all students. The plans note state governments could issue stay-at-home orders in these cases.

For those families that are feeling uncertain about in-person instruction, Avery said Potlatch students will be able to enroll in online-only learning facilitated through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy. Potlatch and Genesee districts are the only public school districts in Latah and Whitman counties offering an online-only option with the start of the school year.

“We’re going to take things one day at a time — we’re going to be safe, but we really want to get our focus back on teaching and learning,” Avery said. “We really want to get back to what our mission is … we’re going to be cautious and we’re not ignoring anything, but we do want to get back to that mission.”

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced all employees working in Washington public schools must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 and issued a statewide mask mandate for public spaces.

Even with these restrictions in place, Colton Superintendent Paul Clark said this year will be as close to “normal” as possible. While students and employees will be wearing masks, he said other measures implemented last year will be relaxed. Clark said among these changes, campus will not be closed to visitors like it was last year, students will be allowed to have lockers and lunch periods will no longer be restricted to class groups.

Though still far from a normal year, Clark said he’s feeling optimistic, particularly considering the district’s success last year with in-person instruction.

“I think in the back of people’s minds, there’s this fear still that something could kind of explode, but I’m really thankful that last year, we started day one with every kid every day, we ended day 180 with every kid every day,” Clark said. “I would not want to be in a place where we hadn’t done much of anything last year. I’m not critical of those places, that’s their business, but for us, people just want to get back in and work with kids.”

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

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