Hopes for a swift return to the classroom were dashed Tuesday as Clark County’s COVID-19 transmission rates grew too high for most students to safely return to school.
The activity rate — the total number of new COVID-19 cases in a 14-day period per 100,000 population — rose to 76.15 in data released Tuesday by Clark County Public Health.
That puts Clark County back into the “high” range for coronavirus transmission. State guidelines recommend that schools in counties with more than 75 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period continue remote learning for all but the most vulnerable students.
Clark County’s activity rate had been in the “moderate” range in the three previous weeks, but that rate had been rising slowly, from 63.05 on Aug. 31 to 64.07 on Sept. 7, and 69.4 on Sept. 14.
Clark County health officials have said the county would need to see activity levels remain in the “moderate” range for at least three weeks in a row after the Labor Day weekend before considering relaxing restrictions. Public Health spokeswoman Marissa Armstrong said health officials coordinated this path to reopening earlier this year with area school districts.
Armstrong said this “high” reading resets the three-week clock. The county must now get back to “moderate” levels of activity and keep it there for three consecutive weeks before standards can be relaxed.
Educational Service District 112 spokeswoman Monique Dugaw said the increasing rates of cases demonstrates the impact the community can have on area schools.
“It’s a fluid situation,” she said. “What the community does is going to support the reopening of schools.”
Area school districts were hopeful that elementary school students could return on a hybrid schedule — some days in the classroom, some days digitally — beginning early next month.
The increasing transmission rate pushes that target back to late October at the earliest.
Schools are already beginning to bring small groups of students back into school, including students receiving special education services or homeless services.
Evergreen Public Schools this week started a pilot program for its kindergartners at Crestline, Image, York and Sifton elementary schools. Those campuses are bringing groups of up to five kindergarten students in class for two hours at a time on alternating schedules, troubleshooting the challenges of socially distanced kindergarten while giving students some time to be with their teacher and peers.
“The kids are excited to be here,” said Pam Younkin, a kindergarten teacher at Sifton Elementary School. She had four students in her classroom Tuesday afternoon, sitting at each corner of her classroom rug. Each student had their own designated basket of supplies, as well as their own ball, hula hoop and jump rope to play with at recess.
“It’s way better for 5-year-olds to be in the classroom,” Younkin said.
District spokeswoman Gail Spolar said these small programs will continue, but the growing transmission rate halts broader reopening for more students.
“It’s a four-week reset,” Spolar said.
Neighboring Vancouver Public Schools has already had to pump the brakes on its own reopening plan. The district had intended to reopen for hybrid learning on Sept. 29. They walked that plan back last week, however, after parents and teachers expressed concern that they didn’t know enough about the district’s reopening plans to do so safely.
“Those questions hadn’t been answered,” district spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo said.
Nuzzo echoed Dugaw, saying it’s “up to everyone” to do their part to stop the spread of COVID-19 so kids can return to school.
“Eventually we will get there,” she said.
Public Health is gathering data to find more specific drivers on the recent uptick in COVID-19 activity. Clark County does not have any major outbreaks such as the one that happened in May at Firestone Pacific Foods in Vancouver, Armstrong said.
Armstrong did note that some cases might be linked to Labor Day gatherings. She also added people gathering indoors because of smoky weather might lead to increased case counts.
“We are within the time frame for when we would expect to begin seeing impacts from the holiday weekend,” Armstrong said.
Clark County recorded 36 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, bringing the county’s total to 3,206 cases. The number of active cases, which measures those with positive tests still in their 10-day isolation period, rose from 132 to 163.
There are 28 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and five hospitalized awaiting test results.
To date, 54 people have died from COVID-19 in Clark County, according to Public Health.