little girl in a disposable mask draws with crayons at the table/DepositPhoto

Spokane private schools wrestle with how to best reach students during COVID

By Ginger Monroe

As COVID-19 case numbers remain above what the Washington State Department of Health defines as “low disease activity,” local schools are having to make the difficult decision of whether or not they will be resuming classes this fall remotely, or in person.

Spokane Public Schools made the decision to begin the fall semester remotely, and the county’s private schools had to make their own decisions regarding whether or not to begin the semester remotely.

“I’m a big believer that kids should be in the classroom, and it really breaks my heart knowing that kids may not have that option this fall, especially public school kids— kids anywhere, public, private, it doesn’t matter, again, I believe that kids should be in a classroom” said Roger Gerstenberger, the Head of Schools at Northwest Christian Schools.

Northwest Christian Schools developed a task force comprised of parents, teachers, administrators, medical experts, and other professionals to help develop their approach to resuming in-person learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gerstenberger emphasized the school’s dedication to having a research based approach to returning to school.

Gerstenberger shared that in his school’s decision to resume in-person learning, they had to consider more than just COVID-19; while also acknowledging the need to mitigate and manage the virus.

“We want to look at student health not just from the perspective of COVID. We want to take a 360 degree evaluative look at student health… because it’s not just about COVID. It’s really looking [at] a student’s physical health, their emotional health, [and] in our case, their spiritual health as well,” Gerstenberger said.

Taking an evaluative look at students’ needs during the pandemic was also important for Covenant Christian School in Spokane and Moses Lake.

Pastor Ken Peters, founder and president of Covenant Christian School, highlighted parents’ decision making role in mitigating the risk for their children and deciding whether or not in-person or opting for Covenant’s homeschool program is the best option for this year.

Peters’s  primary concern in the decision-making process was losing kids through the cracks in remote-learning.

“I think we were able to keep about 70 percent of the children on point and on task, but it was very difficult. It’s hard to keep the kids attention, especially the younger ones on zoom. But we did it [in the spring],” Peters said.

As new information about the virus is released, Peters, along with the board members and elders at Covenant, decided it was worth the risk to have in-person education.

“I think our kids are suffering in more ways than just the virus— and that’s one of the reason’s we’re having school. I think kids are, ya know, their education is better served in person and I think we’re hurting the kids’ education, by many of them— some kids do good in homeschool, but some kids don’t, and those are the ones that are really suffering. I think social activity is good for the kids, and so I do think, there’s pros and cons obviously, but I would just say I really think the kids need this. They need some in-person stuff because it’s hard for little kids to be at home all the time,” said Peters.

However, Southside Christian School on the South Hill has opted to begin the semester remotely. Principal Lorri Downs shared that they were hopeful they would be able to reopen this fall with social distancing, masks, and all of the state’s requirements put into place; but as summer progressed the school had to reevaluate their decision to reopen.

At the beginning of August, Gov. Jay Inslee released new COVID metrics regarding risk-levels by county, and he encouraged schools to follow recommendations given by county health districts. The head of the Spokane County Regional Health District, Dr. Lutz, was a key figure in Southside Christian’s decision to begin the semester remotely.

“We met with our executive board and told them what we had found out with the new guidance and also in the meeting with Dr. Lutz he was just very clear that this was very important to follow. It’s important as a Spokane county to work together so that we can drop these levels lower and ya know here we are the beginning of August, school hasn’t even opened, the levels are high, and if we open schools that’s even gonna drive those numbers up and ya know, basically let’s all work together to try to get those numbers down so all kids can go back to school,” Downs said. 

Additionally, Downs believes it is important to consider how schools’ decisions play a role in the students’ personal formation.

“So taking all of that, then too, what do we want to teach our kids at school? Everybody wants their kids to be good citizens and a good member of a community, right? We just looked at all these factors and are like ‘how can we reopen knowing that, it’s very clear that the recommendation is [not to] open’,” Downs said.

All three school officials agree that in-person learning is the best option for students, but differ in their evaluation of the risk involved in returning to school. Keeping students and the greater community safe remains a priority for educators, regardless of their decisions to resume classes remotely or in-person this fall.

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