Education Lab is a Seattle Times project

To the handful of Washington schools opening their doors this fall: Everyone is watching.

School is set to begin over the next few weeks, and most of the state’s learners are expected to begin the year remotely — a prospect with potentially serious consequences for many struggling to learn at home. Community spread is high enough in many areas, health officials say, that reopening buildings could escalate the pace of the pandemic.

In defiance of such officials’ advice, and despite worry among some parents and teachers, some public and private schools from Moses Lake to Kittitas have opted to reopen their school buildings. Cases are low enough in a few of the state’s counties that in-person learning is unlikely to accelerate coronavirus spread — and schools are opening in these places, too.

“You get in a mode where you ask yourself, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” said Thaynan Knowlton, superintendent of the Clarkston School District, a small district close to Idaho, which is opening for in-person learning Wednesday. “I don’t know. We’re just moving as carefully as we can, not knowing what tomorrow’s going to hold.”

These schools — both public, like Clarkston, and private, such as Blossoming Hill Montessori in King County — are the state’s first to return to learning in buildings after months of coronavirus-related closures. They’re testing out strategies for what back-to-school in person could look like for everyone one day. While Gov. Jay Inslee didn’t mandate online learning, many district leaders are working in violation of warnings from their local health officials.

It could be a rough start. Some schools are old, and don’t have updated air-filtration systems or the ability to keep classrooms ventilated properly. Students and teachers will need to adjust to mandatory safety measures, such as wearing masks and social distancing.

In places where coronavirus isn’t under control, these tactics will likely do little to keep the virus at bay. This is already happening in states that have opened schools, such as Indiana and Georgia, and on some university campuses including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In Washington, public health officials have the authority to shut down schools; districts can also act on their own if cases begin to crop up.

Take Moses Lake School District, where schools will open for in-person learning on Sept. 9. Incidence in Grant County, where the district is located, was 525 cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks, well above what state guidance describes as “high risk.” High-risk areas include places with more than 75 cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period.

During a School Board meeting Aug. 13, the county’s health district laid out a detailed case for why schools should remain closed. “It is not appropriate, it is against the evidence,” to open schools now because Grant County’s rate of infection is too high, Alexander Brzezny, the county’s health officer, told the board.

The district is giving parents the option to send their children to school for in-person classes; use a hybrid model where students go to school some of the time and study at home on other days; or go entirely online. Parents had to make a decision last week. Moses Lake parents were split roughly evenly — about a third of parents chose each option.

Matthew Paluch, the father of three boys and husband of a physician, is one of the parents who won’t send his kids to school during the pandemic. He fears his community is in denial of the science of disease spread.

“We’re looking at a situation where they’re going to open the schools, and they’re going to get shut down pretty quickly,” he predicted. When schools open to in-person instruction, “the community as a whole is going to have more exposure to the virus,” he said. Seventeen Moses Lake doctors, including Paluch’s wife Natalie, submitted a letter to the city School Board last week strongly urging the district to keep students at home.

Moses Lake Superintendent Joshua Meek acknowledged that the decision has been controversial. But “what we’ve come to peace with as Americans, as Washingtonians, is that this isn’t going away, it’s not like a switch is going to be flipped,” he said of COVID-19. “This is our new normal, and we need to figure out a way to navigate it.”

In mid-August, Inslee and state schools chief Chris Reykdal said it was unsafe for a vast majority of Washington’s 1.1 million students to return to classrooms for in-person school this fall. But unlike Inslee’s spring decision to shut down schools across the state, the new guidance did not mandate closures, leaving it instead up to local officials.

Kittitas School District School Board members voted this month to return to in-person learning — but whether this happens is ultimately up to local health officials. The small district of about 620 students must file a petition outlining its safety measures and justifying why it wants to open; it plans to do so next week. Kittitas is an outlier for its county. Most other nearby districts are starting online, said district Superintendent Mike Nollan.

As with the Grant County Health District, which includes Moses Lake, Kittitas County health officials say school buildings shouldn’t yet open. Nollan agrees — as do a small majority of the district’s teachers who took a recent survey, he said. But, he said, about 70% of surveyed parents said they want schools to reopen for in-person or hybrid learning. The district ultimately sided with the community’s wishes to reopen.

On a recent tour of the district’s school buildings, county health officials suggested the district bring an expert in to test the lower elementary school’s ventilation system, Nollan said. The district has lots of other details to iron out before school begins. “If we were to open up tomorrow, yeah I would be afraid. Very afraid. So I would say no, we are not ready. We will be.”

In the small town of Clarkston, on the Washington-Idaho border, school will be back in session in person for most students Wednesday. Clarkston is in Asotin County, one of just five counties in Washington deemed “low risk” by the state health department at the time Inslee made his announcement. At that time, Asotin had the equivalent of fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 people.

But case numbers have been rising recently, and Asotin County, which has a population of about 22,000, now has the equivalent of 84 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the state’s COVID-19 risk assessment dashboard. Some cases may be coming from Idaho, which is following a looser set of rules than Washington, said Knowlton, the Clarkston superintendent. Across the Snake River in Lewiston, a kind of twin city to Clarkston, restaurants are open and few people are wearing masks.

“I think we’ve been pretty good, as Washingtonians, doing the best we can,” Knowlton said. In Idaho, “it’s just a completely different world.”