Back to School: Whidbey school districts settle on fall plans
— Created August 12, 2020 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
There is one sure thing as it relates to children heading back to school next month – nothing is really sure.
The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted school schedules last spring, leaving educators scrambling to figure out how to provide suitable distance learning for all students. A few months later, school districts have learned a lot about how to make distance learning work better, but the question looming large is whether in-person education can pick up where it left off?
The short answer is probably not.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last week issued recommendations from the State Department of Health on resuming in-person instruction in public and private schools for the 2020-2021 academic year. These are recommendations only, and allow local health departments and school districts to decide whether they will allow students back in the classroom and what that will look like in any given district or school.
“We know the uncertainty surrounding school reopening is a source of extraordinary anxiety for parents and educators – anxiety not just about whether it’s safe to go back to school in person, but also about the impacts to children if they don’t return to the classroom,” Inslee said.
The plan basically separates counties into three risk categories – low, medium and high – based on the level of COVID-19 transmission. Most counties fall into the moderate or high risk categories. Island County is currently considered moderate risk, meaning the state recommends distance learning for middle and high school students, possible in-person options for elementary students, and the cancellation or postponement of in-person extracurricular activities.
As it stands now, Whidbey Island school districts are all looking at various distance-learning models but only Oak Harbor Public Schools plans to start the school year with students physically in the classroom. At Monday evening’s school board meeting, the Oak Harbor school board approved the proposal to provide Distance-Plus learning for students at the intermediate, middle and high school levels. Elementary students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade will attend school in person in a hybrid rotation, meaning they will have three days of distance learning and two days of in-person classes.
The six-phase plan does allow for some flexibility, such as slowly adding more students to the hybrid in-person model should cases of the virus drop; likewise, the district will have the ability to move all students to a distance learning model if necessary. Parents may also choose to allow their children to remain on a distance learning program, attend Oak Harbor Virtual Academy or choose to homeschool.
The proposal to begin the school in year phase two of the plan met with unanimous approval from board members, although they said they did not make the decision lightly.
“This is a hard thing to grapple with,” said board member Jessica Aws. “We’ve all been struggling with it for weeks now. Someone mentioned earlier there’s no decision that we could make that makes everyone happy…I know that there are a lot of great minds working really hard to make all of this work, I just ask we continue to be flexible as the situation changes, because it will. It’s so hard to even predict what will happen a month from now.”
“It may be quite simpler to go all virtual and to stay at that for the semester, or even the year. But I feel like in Oak Harbor we don’t take the simplest route,” said John Diamond, board president. “We’ll make every effort for our kids and our community…These decisions are heavy and we understand that. The plan the administration has come up with I feel is a good plan. I think it’s something that we can work with. It further gives us options to advance or to retract as needed, given the circumstances we find ourselves in going forward.”
“As a board member and a retired teacher, this has not been an easy task,” said board member Lynn Goebel. “I feel that we have to be flexible. We have to approach this with grace and we have to be very innovative, because this is about the students in our buildings, in our community. Schools are the heart and soul of a community and it’s going to take all of us to follow those safety guidelines and to participate in keeping our kids safe.”
OHPS Superintendent Lance Gibbon told the board the administration has worked closely with Island County Public Health to formulate the plan and it meets all state DOH safety criteria, including requiring masks, social distancing and environmental cleaning.
Other districts on the island will not be offering in-person instruction at this time, except under special circumstances.
“It has become clear that we are just not able to fully reopen our schools to in-person instruction this fall,” reads an online statement from Coupeville School Superintendent Steve King. “It is the consensus of our school board and administrative team that our schools open the 20-21 school year in Stage 2, which we are referring to as Coupeville’s Remote and Connection Model.”
This model includes “improved remote learning…and additional in-person connections for ‘at-school’ opportunities for specifically identified students.”
South Whidbey School District has also released its preliminary plan – expected to be approved by the school board this week – which consists of a Hybrid Learning Limited program.
“All students will participate in distance learning, staff will be able to be onsite for the purpose of planning and delivering instruction,” said a statement by Jo Moccia, SWSD superintendent. “In this limited hybrid model there will be limited face to face time with our most vulnerable students, including Kindergarten and some students receiving special education services, on a very limited basis. Most of this will occur outdoors.”
Whidbey Island school districts have been able to provide connectivity to most students, since distance learning requires technology. Gov. Inslee said the state recognizes the importance of internet access, especially to students in rural or underserved areas, and will be providing $8.8 million from the federal CARES Act to help low income families obtain internet plans and help with other technology needs. The funds will be administered by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“This pandemic created unprecedented challenges in our efforts to meet our obligations to equity in education, but we are no less committed to seeing all of our students receive it,” Inslee said. “It is the right thing to do and crucial for the success of all our students.”