When a crisis hits, first and foremost, you take care of each other.

That’s been the mantra in our school district the last two months as we’ve tried to keep students, staff and families connected, safe and “whole” in a situation none could have imagined.

When Gov. Jay Inslee ordered school buildings closed on March 17, the state’s 1.1 million children, their families and school staff across 295 districts immediately faced a new reality. How would we address the needs of children who rely on access to food at school? How would students needing mental health therapy at school get support? How could districts support children of essential workers? What would it look like for all students to learn virtually from home? What about those with special needs?

In alignment with state guidance and community values, we placed a priority on making sure our students had access to food. We started with “grab-and-go” centers at two schools to pick up lunch. 

This grew into a delivery model with bus drivers visiting school bus stops across Fidalgo and Guemes Islands each day delivering bags with breakfast and lunch to about 400 students. 

This effort is supported by Food to Go (www.foodtogoanacortes.com), a local nonprofit that provides weekend food for our families most in need.

On the mental health front, we knew student needs would persist. Depression, anxiety and other challenges don’t go away in a pandemic; in fact, the stressors of social isolation, financial insecurity and family dysfunction can grow. Fortunately, our district boasts a strong team that includes school counselors, as well as therapists and a social worker funded by the district, Island Hospital Foundation and county.

This team supports a caseload of more than 100 students receiving regular support through online counseling. What a gift to be able to leverage technology with well-trained professionals to support children who might be in crisis. The group also performs wellness checks to ensure that an even larger group of students has a caring adult inquiring about them.

Our child care program for essential workers has staff coming together to provide daily support for about 20 children of essential workers. Our nurses created strict protocols to keep everyone safe, our food service staff provides meals, and group leaders facilitate a nurturing learning space for those entrusted to us.

Our virtual learning program has evolved. Initially the state directed us to provide an optional “enrichment” experience for students. Then, when it became clear the closure would extend through the school year, the state issued revised guidance to cover new content, require participation and grade student work.

A huge factor in our ability to develop a meaningful program stemmed from past community support for our technology levies. These levies, passed in 2014 and 2018, allowed us to purchase devices for every student and develop the infrastructure necessary to take advantage of online resources. 

It’s important to acknowledge that we all face a learning curve with this new at-home model for student learning. Parents have been thrust into the role of teacher in many cases and have come to understand how challenging teaching can be. Teachers, meanwhile, have rallied by adapting to video presentations, small-group Zoom meetings and constant email to support student learning. Our educators have worked hard to adapt individual education plans for students with disabilities with online programs, tailored instruction and individual check-ins.

While the academic content is important, staff have frequently noted how kids light up at simply seeing each other online. Building a sense of community is so vital during these times.

Our goal is to carry that sense of community into a 2020 graduation ceremony to honor our resilient and accomplished Class of 2020. 

While planning a virtual ceremony for June, we hold open the possibility of an in-person celebration later in the summer.

No one knows what the future of COVID-19 holds. Regardless, we stand ready to support families however we can.

At the heart of our approach will be care. It’s what holds a community together.

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