Local schools open for in-person learning give glimpse into rewards and risks

The vast majority of schools in Western Washington are starting the year with kids attending classes from home.

Still, a handful decided to open their doors for in-person learning.

We went to Renton to visit one of those schools to see for ourselves how it’s being done. It could provide valuable lessons for the rest of our schools about the rewards and risks when it comes time to reopen. 

Renton Prep Christian School reopened to students on August 17th. 

At the school, masks are a must. Desks are distanced. You find sanitizing stations every few feet. Along with reminders on the floor about the importance of spacing. 

“We know this is uncharted territory for everyone right now," said the Executive Director, Dr. Michelle Zimmerman. "Try and look forward and say 'What has been done? What can be done?' It needs someone to pioneer that."

Renton Prep, a kindergarten through 10th-grade private school wants to be that pioneer. Roughly half of the school's 140 students returned from summer for in-person learning. The rest attend remotely from home. 

The school started the school year early to take advantage of the dry weather in August and conduct more classes and lunch outdoors, where studies show the risk of transmitting the virus is much lower. 

All students are given a health screening over a smartphone app before arriving at school. If they show up without completing the survey, they are given a temperature check before they can enter. 

We watched kids on an outdoor patio, learning about the science of bubbles. 

For sixth-grader Cecilia Santos, being surrounded by other students offers the school experience she’s been missing.

“I feel like it’s more productive because I did online school last year and I didn’t really like it,” Santos said.

Freshman Ayaka Pier had her own list of benefits of being back in a classroom. 

“Just interact with your teachers. I feel like it’s a lot easier to get support from your peers and your instructors,” Pier said.  

For the first two weeks, Renton Prep had no COVID-19 cases. Then this week, a teacher’s assistant tested positive, after catching Coronavirus, the school said, from a family member. 

That teacher’s aide who tested positive had been in the classroom.

"The school told us, because she had been wearing a mask and stayed six feet from students, the health department said, the school did not need to shut down. We contacted King County Public Health immediately," Zimmerman said. "We contacted our medical professional experts, our legal team, to ask what next steps to take. According to the guidelines and the safety procedures that we have here, they said it does not count as an exposure.”

Q13 News reached out to Public Health - Seattle and King County.

The health department provided this response: 

"We do not have any record of contacts between Renton Prep Christian School and Public Health - Seattle & King County (PHSKC). When the PHSKC COVID-19 Community Response Team is notified of a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 in a school or childcare setting, one of our disease investigators would contact the school to do a thorough assessment and provide guidance and recommendations on how to keep kids and staff as safe as possible. We will be following up with the school in order to gather more information." 

Turns out, the school had contacted the Washington State Department of Health. Renton Prep is in conversations with the county health department as well. They have not had any additional positive COVID-19 cases in staffers or students. 

Dr. Zimmerman said, even if they can only stay open for a few weeks, it will be worth it for the developmental and psychological well-being of the students at Renton Prep. 

"By keeping kids at home entirely, we realize there’s a lot of social and emotional impact on negative emotions toward self and feelings of isolation,” Zimmerman said.

Freshman Brooklyn Jones hopes the in-person learning can continue. 

“I hope that we can stay open, but the virus has been pretty unpredictable so, you never know," Jones said.