Middle and high school students in Nooksack Valley School District will return to remote learning only starting Monday, Nov. 30, as advised by the Whatcom County Health Department according to a message to parents from Superintendent Mark Johnson.

The county health department guidance for middle and high school students to roll back to distance learning are recommended for all private and public schools in Whatcom County as COVID-19 infection rates continue to surge.

Johnson’s announcement Wednesday, Nov. 25, was made as county health department data showed that Nooksack Valley was one of two school district regions — the other was Ferndale — that had COVID-19 infection rates hit 200 last week. The data was published late Tuesday night, and those rates were the highest experienced by any region so far during the pandemic, according to a previous Bellingham Herald article.

The data isn’t specific to schools per se. The county health department previously told The Herald that it releases weekly location data based on school district boundaries to maintain the confidentiality, as required by federal medical privacy laws, of those with COVID-19.

Since Nov. 3, the Nooksack Valley School District region has seen 23 cases — an increase from 100 cases reported Nov. 3 to 123 reported Nov. 24. The infection rate for those same dates increased from 54 to 208, according to a Bellingham Herald article. That’s currently the highest infection rate for the seven school districts in Whatcom County, followed by Ferndale School District with a rate of 200.

The ongoing surge of new COVID-19 infections has prompted Dr. Greg Stern, Whatcom County Health officer, to amend the guidance he provided on Nov. 18 to school districts. At that time, he asked school leaders to pause their plans to expand in-person instruction for middle and high school students.

If those older students were already back in the classroom, Stern said then, they didn’t have to return to remote learning, provided community transmission rates didn’t continue to rise.

That changed this week as COVID-19 infection rates continued to increase dramatically in the state, and are expected to worsen, according to Stern.

“The rates in the counties south of us have exceeded 300 cases in 14 days (per) 100,000 people, and ours now exceeds 200, with no expectation of going back to below 100 in the near future,” Stern said. “Unfortunately, we anticipate further increased rates following the Thanksgiving holiday.”

That lead Stern to “highly recommend” the rollback to remote learning only for older students in his latest guidance to school districts. Middle and high schools have until Dec. 4 to do so, according to Stern.

Stern’s most recent recommendation does not apply to high-need students.

“Late last night we received word that our county health department has reviewed our current COVID data and has determined that we should discontinue in-person learning at the Middle and High School by no later than Dec. 4, at least until after the first of the year,” Johnson wrote on Wednesday.

Nooksack Valley middle and high school students will return fully to remote learning starting Monday, Johnson wrote. Its middle school and high school students were in a hybrid model, with half days.

Hybrid means that students were learning online and in the classroom.

“We all want our students safely back in school with our great staff. Given the current metrics used to make that happen, we are not pointed in the right direction at this time. My hope is that we will see these numbers start to reverse over the next several weeks,” Johnson said.

“I also want to take this opportunity to thank our staff for partnering in these efforts toward in-person learning,” Johnson added. “They share a desire to get students back into our classrooms and share in the disappointment of this recent news.”

Stern’s new guidance doesn’t ask schools to backtrack on in-person learning for elementary students already in classrooms.

School districts and private schools make the final decision about their level of operations in compliance with Gov. Jay Inslee’s most recent proclamation and the state Department of Health’s Decision Tree, the county health department said.

The Decision Tree helps guide health jurisdictions and schools grappling with whether to return to in-person learning or continue with remote learning. That state guideline could be revised but that’s not likely to happen before the end of December, according to Stern.

In a separate message to Nooksack Valley families on Nov. 17, Johnson said the school district had its first positive case of COVID-19.

“I am so very proud of all of our schools and homes for following and enforcing our protocols and structures. Because of this, only one classroom and one staff are quarantined,” he said in his message.

No additional details were provided about the case, including what school it was in, although The Herald has asked the school district for more information.

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Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.

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