School buildings across county may remain closed this fall

The parking lot of Anacortes Middle School, home of the district office, was empty in this July 2020 photo as officials worked on a strategy for educating children during a pandemic. 

The Anacortes School District is facing financial difficulties and celebrating technological advancements as it moves toward the second half of the school year.

In a series of reports presented at a school board meeting Dec. 17, district leadership talked about the ups and downs of the past year and what lies ahead.

The district plans to bring back all elementary school students Jan. 4 and all middle and high school students in February.

As it moves toward that goal, the staff is also focusing on connecting students with support such as mental health help through Island Hospital. Students are facing struggles this year with all of the isolation and stress that comes from remote learning, said Becky Clifford.

“More than ever right now, students need that mental health support,” she said.

Working with community partners means that programs like mental health help can continue even as the district faces budget shortfalls and future cuts, Superintendent Justin Irish said.

Members of the district leadership team are taking furlough days, and the district is bracing itself for what may be significant budget cuts in the future.

Enrollment is still dropping at the district, district Director of Finance Dave Cram said at the meeting. The payments from the state were based on estimates for the first few months of the year, but starting in January that shifts to actual enrollment. Those numbers are much lower than budgeted, which means less money.

Some families have pulled students from the district because they want in-person learning, Irish said. Others pulled out after announcements of the return to school.

There is no way to make everyone happy, so leaders are trying to do the best they can and keep students safe, Irish said.

“These are polarizing times,” he said.

The district is celebrating some things, too, such as having devices on-hand for students, according to Director of Technology Robert Pohl.

The district funded a one-to-one device system for all grades from kindergarten to 12th more than a year before it originally planned, he said. That has been instrumental in providing learning to all students this year, he said.

“We would have been in a situation of not being able to provide instruction for kindergartners or first-graders,” Pohl said.

A remote learning model definitely has its challenges, Pohl said. Tech support requests have tripled. The limited technology staff is doing everything it can to make sure people stay connected, he said.

Using technology levy and one-time federal funding this year, the School District purchased 100 internet hotspots to help families lacking solid internet access at home. As of last week, the district had checked out 76 of those devices to families.

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