LONG BEACH PENINSULA — Ocean Beach School District took a cautious but colossal step forward this week, as its youngest students returned to school buildings for the first time since all in-person instruction in Washington state was closed down last March.

The district’s decision to bring students and staff physically back to class comes after disease activity in the county declined after a surge of cases earlier in the month. The Pacific County Health and Human Services Department reported two new cases on Sept. 28, after an 11-day stretch where no new cases were reported in the county.

As of Sept. 28, the county’s case rate is 23.1 new cases per 100,000 people over a two-week rolling average, according to county health manager Stephanie Michael. The case rate puts the county into the low-risk category when it comes to students physically returning to school, according to state recommendations.

LBE goes to five days a week

Second graders at Long Beach Elementary were the first students in the district to return to the classroom on Monday, Sept. 28, along with preschoolers. OBSD received approval from the city of Long Beach to block off a small section of Washington Street for a brief period of time each morning to allow students to unload from buses.

At 8:30 a.m., the students promptly unloaded from buses and cars with masks on and were greeted by LBE staff, who led them to their classrooms after receiving a dollop of hand sanitizer on the way into the building. Students must remain with their cohort, and only their cohort, throughout the entire school day.

“I know [bringing back second graders initially] may seem a little bit counter intuitive, because we know kindergarten is the most crucial group to get in. But as for starting with a group we thought it made sense for safety reasons to start with a group that has done school, so they kind of know routines and some of those things,” said OBSD Superintendent Amy Huntley at the Sept. 23 school board meeting.

First graders are set to return to class on Sept. 30 and kindergarten students are expected to be back on Oct. 1, as part of the district’s phased return to in-person learning. From Oct. 1 onward, every grade level at LBE will be in school full-time for five days a week, so long as local conditions remain favorable and the district doesn’t receive an influx of new students that would make it impossible for students to be socially distanced from each other while in the classroom.

“Kindergarten is full. We can’t add anymore kindergartners with the space restrictions and not have to go to a hybrid [model],” said Huntley. “We’re hoping to keep it five days a week as long as we possibly can, but we know that there may be factors that come into play that change that.”

Face masks are mandatory in order to attend school in-person, and parents are asked every day — via form or digitally — to attest that their child is well enough to attend school.

Other schools to transition into hybrid model

As long as disease activity in the area remains low, OBSD plans to roll into a hybrid model for grades 3-12 over the next two weeks. While all students at LBE are able to return to the classroom five days a week, students in each of grades 3-12 are broken up into two separate groups — Group A and Group B.

Group A students are set to attend school in-person on Monday and Tuesday each week, while Group B students attend class in-person on Thursday and Friday. Huntley said there are too many students at each of the schools, other than LBE, to accommodate full-time in-person instruction. Groups are established based on home addresses and bus routes in order to ensure students living in the same household are attending school on the same days.

For students who ride the bus, Huntley said their bus driver will be getting in touch with them before their first day back to class to tell them which group they are in and what time they will be picked up in the morning and dropped off in the afternoon. For students not riding the bus, Huntley encouraged them to call their school’s office.

On Oct. 5, Group A third grade students are set to return to class at Ocean Park Elementary. The next day, grades 3-5 Group A students will all be in the building for class. The same process will play out for Group B students that week, with only third graders attending on Oct. 8 before all Group B students are in class on Oct. 9. Beginning Oct. 12, all Ocean Park Elementary students will be fully in the hybrid model, each attending class in-person two days per week while learning remotely the remaining three days.

If all goes well, Hilltop and Ilwaco High School will both roll into the hybrid model beginning on Oct. 12, in the same manner as OPE. Group A sixth and ninth grade students will return to class that day, with all grade 6-12 Group A students attending school on Oct. 13. Beginning Oct. 19, the schools will be fully integrated into the hybrid model.

At Hilltop, the students will be sorted into elementary-style cohorts, meaning that students will be in the same classroom with the same teacher and same classmates for the entire school day, which is how LBE and OPE are operating. At the high school, students will be assigned to small pods — sorted by home address and schedule — as not all classes will meet in-person, but in-person support will be available for all classes.

“People just need to realize that school isn’t going to look like it usually does, but we’re really excited to have the kids back,” Huntley said.

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