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Rural School Districts Face Bigger Challenges With COVID

"Eventually, it's a matter of time before something gives," said Jerrad Jeske, the first-year superintendent in the Liberty School District south of Spokane, Wash.

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(TNS) - The school year has barely begun, yet some rural districts in the Inland Northwest are already coming down with a major case of COVID fatigue.

From Spangle to St. Maries and from Reardan to Rathdrum, smaller districts are facing the same problems as larger ones — with the added burdens of remoteness, lower compliance with mask mandates and less flexibility to absorb staff losses from a spike in COVID-19 cases.

"Eventually, it's a matter of time before something gives," said Jerrad Jeske, the first-year superintendent in the Liberty School District south of Spokane.

In some places it already has. Recently, the St. Maries School District in North Idaho retreated to remote learning after 30% of students and 20% of staff were out with COVID. Garfield- Palouse and Othello did the same after outbreaks at their high schools, while other districts are just a few cases away from the same fate.

That includes Liberty, where at least 58 students and staff recently tested positive in a district of about 500 students.

"It could have been worse," said Jeske, who caught a break during the Labor Day weekend following an initial wave of cases at the high school. The long weekend allowed for additional testing, but the virus still found its way into several classrooms.

Fortunately, Liberty was able to keep kids in school, albeit at Level 2, with more frequent testing and greater social distancing. For now the worst is over: Liberty is down to 19 positive cases.

"Student learning is done best when students have the ability to work directly with their teachers in the classroom setting," Jeske said.

That's the overarching goal, everyone agrees. However, it's been a challenge.

Masking, grudgingly

Across the region, rural superintendents have praised their communities for overall compliance with masking requirements, but most acknowledged some lack of cooperation.

Coincidentally or not, as bad as the COVID metrics are in Spokane County (605 per 100,000 population in the past 2 weeks as of Monday), they're much worse in most neighboring counties.

As of Monday, that rate stood just under 1,000 in Lincoln and Stevens counties and almost as high in others, though only 473 in Whitman.

The evidence is anecdotal, but higher rates of COVID in rural counties appear at least partly due to lower compliance. Some of that is driven by politics and perhaps a false sense of security from living far from the city.

"We work with our students to develop positive relationships, we all know what we need to do in order to continue in-person instruction," Jeske said. "We have some that would disagree with the masking policy, but, in general, everyone understands what we have to do."

However, they appear to require constant reminders, though with mixed results.

Palouse School District Superintendent Mike Jones recently sent a letter to parents noting that "the numbers we are seeing in the first two weeks far exceeds what we experienced all of last year."

Jones went on: "We are doing everything we can to bring this trend down in our schools and we ask that you highly consider the following three strategies: masking, vaccination and testing."

It didn't help. A few days later, the Palouse and Garfield districts announced that their combined high school would revert to remote learning after more than 40% of students were absent because of COVID-19 and other reasons.

Jones did not blame the outbreak to one particular event, but mentioned activities in Whitman County such as Washington State University football and the Palouse Empire Fair.

Then again, it's been a tough year on the Palouse. Coming off one of the worst wheat harvests in recent memory, people were craving some normalcy. Based on early summer COVID numbers, they had reason to expect it.

Then came the delta variant, followed by more frustration that some freedoms had been lost.

A year ago, Gov. Jay Inslee gave local districts considerable leeway on reopening. Pressured by families, most rural districts opted for at least a hybrid model, with results as mixed as those in larger schools. But that was far preferable to the misery of remote learning for rural families who lacked internet.

However, Inslee offered no wiggle room this year on the issue of masks. That should have given some political cover for districts, yet the protests were as fierce as last year's.

That leaves administrators walking a line, urging compliance without being overbearing about it. They've also sent a message that however inconvenient it is to wear a mask, the learning environment is better than a year ago.

Some aren't buying it.

Earlier this year, students in Colville held an anti-mask protest outside the high school, then entered the school without masks. They were given a choice: mask up or go home. Some chose the latter.

"We've had some people expressing their opinions," said Colville Superintendent Steve Fisk.

"I want to be respectful of all voices, but I'm going to support keeping people safe."

In the Reardan-Edwall School District west of Spokane, Superintendent Eric Sobotta said noncompliance was limited to a few spectators at football games.

However, it doesn't take much to start an outbreak. Last week, three members of the middle school volleyball team tested positive; fortunately, the district was able to test the rest of the team and go ahead with the match.

Sometimes, resistance to masking comes from the top — especially in Idaho, which has no mask mandate.

In the Lakeland School District in Rathdrum, where anti-maskers comprise a majority of the school board, face coverings aren't mentioned in the back-to-school operational plan. The district also is the largest in the area not to post a COVID dashboard on its site, following a recommendation by a parent subcommittee.

Other districts refuse to publish a dashboard because they say it might infringe on student privacy. It's unclear whether that leads to a false sense of security in the community; regardless, security was shattered recently in St. Maries, when all students were moved to remote learning, at least temporarily.

However, other conservative communities have managed to come together before crisis hit.

"I haven't met anybody who is super happy about wearing masks," said Ken Russell, superintendent of the Riverside School District in north Spokane County. "But we've gotten to know our families and parents and talked through the differences."

"The frustration is there ... but the temperature has gone down a little bit, and we're not putting kids in the middle of it," Russell said.

Other communities have been more successful, or perhaps luckier.

In the Tekoa School District in Whitman County, there's been no pushback against the mask mandate.

"For whatever reason it's been less of a problem here," said first-year Superintendent John Cordell.

So has COVID. Last year, the district kept schools fully open, albeit with a few positive tests. It's the same this year, with only three cases since school opened.

"We're doing well, and we don't have a mask issue with the kids," Cordell said Monday.

Hoping for the best

Like other administrators, Russell has straddled a fine line: encouraging but not condemning, and reminding community members that being in-school with masks is far better than remote learning or the hybrid model used last year.

Some are listening, but Riverside has its share of COVID: 34 cases Friday .

"We're having a significantly better start than last year," said Russell, who mentioned in-person learning but made it clear how important clubs and sports are to students.

"We're not normal by any means," Russell said. "But band and music make a huge difference for a lot of kids. And we're allowed to have Friday night football."

More to the point, they're playing football in the fall — a big slice of normalcy that can't be understated in small towns.

It's the same story in Davenport, where fall sports are back and COVID has been held at bay so far. The Davenport School District doesn't keep a public tally of cases, but they've been modest.

Superintendent Jim Kowalkowski is keeping his fingers crossed.

"We've had a few cases of students testing positive, or being quarantined," Kowalkowski said. "But every day, we've been able to get the buses running, though it's been a challenge."

For smaller districts, even a small outbreak can sideline enough teachers and staff to force kids back to remote learning.

One more worry: How many staff members will be lost to the new law requiring state employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, unless they can obtain a religious or medical exemption?

"We have very few substitutes," Kowalkowski said. "It's been nip and tuck all the way."

It's the same story in Liberty. On Thursday, Jeske had to fill in for his high school principal when the latter had a family emergency; at least it wasn't COVID.

"I am more concerned about our staff as they are working harder than ever and being asked to do more than ever," said Jeske, who saw case counts drop substantially in the last two weeks.

All agree that this is no time for pessimism.

Even on her toughest day in at St. Maries, Superintendent Alica Holthaus struck a hopeful tone.

"This town has a habit of coming together in times of need," she said. "And this is a time of need."

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