SEDRO-WOOLLEY — With its rusty pipes, temporary walls and maze-like classrooms, Evergreen Elementary School has long posed a challenge for the Sedro-Woolley School District.

Heading into the fall, the district faces another challenge when it comes to the aging school: How to keep staff and students safe from COVID-19 in a building where hallways run through classrooms, learning spaces are separated only by bookshelves, and trips to the restroom often require walking through multiple classrooms.

“Our focus is supporting teachers and kids with the best learning areas we can possibly provide,” said Chet Griffith, the district’s transportation and facilities director. “We have a lot of different areas to worry about.”

While Evergreen poses a unique challenge for the Sedro-Woolley School District, each of the state’s 295 school districts will face problems of their own when it comes to bringing kids back on campuses.

“We’re all beginning to work through these same issues and concerns,” Sedro-Woolley School District Superintendent Phil Brockman said.

One thing is for certain: When school resumes next fall, it will look much different than it did before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools in March.

“I think this is the hardest school leadership challenge in a generation,” Anacortes School District Superintendent Mark Wenzel said.

THE OPTIONS

When state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal sent out his initial guidance on what the fall will look like, he said he expects schools to return to how they operated before the pandemic as much as possible.

“That comes from a realization that remote learning works well for some, but there are many, many students who get left behind in the remote learning model,” Mount Vernon School District Superintendent Carl Bruner said.

Included in the 55-page planning guide are requirements to maintain at least six feet of separation throughout the school day, to wear face masks, to have health screenings before entering school facilities and to limit the number of people during meals and assemblies.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces,” said Northwest Education Service District 189 Superintendent Larry Francois. “Space constraints are going to limit a district’s ability to have all kids there all the time. I think for many districts that’s going to continue to be a challenge.”

The NWESD serves 35 school districts and a state-tribal school in Island, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties.

When it comes to the guidance on how to reopen, questions abound.

“There will be a lot of logistics to figure out,” said Mount Vernon School District Assistant Superintendent Bill Nutting. “From the bus ride to the drop-off, the check-in process, details around breakfast and lunch, moving around the school, how classrooms are set up ... . There are lots and lots of details to figure out and work through.”

Districts that cannot meet the physical distancing requirement have other options: split or rotate schedules with distance — or online — learning; phased-in openings with distance learning; and “Continuous Learning 2.0,” an enhanced form of the distance learning plan that districts have been using since March.

“We’ve learned a lot through this spring’s experience,” Nutting said. “We’ve learned some things that worked and some things that didn’t work so well. That’s going to help us if we’re in some kind of blended model.”

As of now, each of Skagit County’s seven public school districts are planning to use blended models, meaning not every student will be in a classroom every day.

“All of us want to have everyday school,” Brockman said. “So the biggest challenge is that question: Can we have all-day, everyday school? I think the answer right now is yes for some (statewide), no for others.”

What the guidance doesn’t give districts is a blueprint on how to accomplish the task they’ve been given.

“The biggest challenge is the number of questions that this guidance raises,” said Todd Setterlund, the Burlington-Edison School District’s executive director of teaching, learning and communications.

From classrooms to buses, lunchrooms to locker rooms, nearly every aspect of the school system will need to be addressed.

THE QUESTIONS

In the early phases of planning, most districts have formed committees to address the reopening of schools.

Many have already or are planning to send surveys to their families as well as to staff about how they would like to see districts move forward.

“We’re gathering as much information as we can,” Brockman said.

Among the questions districts have to address is how to get students to and from schools.

For the Concrete School District, where 90% of students ride the bus, physical distancing may prove a challenge.

“If we have to run multiple routes during the day, or if we have to figure out how to run other routes, it adds to your (transportation) costs,” said Concrete School District Superintendent Wayne Barrett. “It’s going to get expensive.”

As a result of those transportation challenges, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is encouraging districts to ask families to have children walk to school.

That poses its own challenges.

“That sounds great,” Burlington-Edison’s Setterlund said. “But geographically, we’re a large district. A kid from Alger is not going to walk to school.”

For the Conway School District, where the majority of its 450 students don’t take the bus, busing likely won’t be an issue, Superintendent Jeff Cravy said.

Cravy said the bigger challenge will be checking temperatures on all students before they enter the school.

Districts also have to purchase cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for staff and students. While much of that may be funded through federal relief funding, anything not covered will need to be paid for through district funds.

In order to avoid a backlog, many districts are making those purchases now, Cravy said.

“If things change, we may have a lot of extra supplies,” he said. “But we’d rather err on the side of caution.”

Despite the precautions, districts are expecting that some parents may still not feel comfortable sending their kids to school.

“There’s a spectrum of families and their response to the pandemic,” said Wenzel, whose last day as Anacortes’ superintendent is Tuesday. “Part of the challenge is how to best address the flexible solutions that meet diverse family needs.”

Francois at the NWESD said estimates suggest that 10% to 30% of parents may not want to send their children back. That would have an impact on how much money districts receive from the state.

“For a district to lose 10% to 30% of their population would be devastating financially,” he said.

That loss would be especially hard for small districts.

“Any enrollment decline is going to hit us really hard,” said La Conner School District Superintendent Whitney Meissner, who will be leaving her job Tuesday.

It may also have an impact on districts’ staffing levels.

“That’s probably the one that’s causing me the most stress,” Cravy said. “We’re doing a lot of planning not knowing if it’s going to five or 50 (students). That’s a big challenge for us and that directly connects to the staff piece.”

In terms of staff, Wenzel said national data suggests that up to 20% may not be able to return for a variety of reasons, including being in high-risk categories.

In La Conner, that number may be as high as 50%, Meissner said.

“What we’re going to prepare for is multiple realities,” she said.

In Concrete, a district which Barrett said may be able to provide enough classroom space for appropriate physical distancing, having enough staff to manage those classrooms could be difficult.

“You have to have a teacher in there,” he said. “We can’t drive our staffing costs way up either. We’re funded at what we’re funded at.”

On top of those financial challenges, districts may also feel the effect of a statewide loss of revenue as a result of the pandemic, meaning there may be less money coming in.

“I think we’re all preparing for the fact that there could be reductions,” Meissner said.

An additional factor districts have to take into consideration is what stage of reopening their counties are in.

“The hardest part is we have to be flexible,” said incoming Anacortes School District Superintendent Justin Irish, who will take the reins on Wednesday. “We don’t know what anything will look like in the fall, so we have to plan for the best-case scenario if we’re in Phase 4 and worst-case scenario if we’re in Phase 1.”

Another thing districts need to look at, Irish said, is what if an outbreak forces the closure of one school, but not necessarily the whole district.

The past several months, however, have given districts an advantage there.

“If we’ve learned anything over the past three months it’s that we can be flexible and adapt,” Setterlund said. “I really think there’s an opportunity to be creative and think outside the box, but then there are financial implications too. I think we have a lot of work to do.”

CONTINUOUS LEARNING 2.0

No matter which option for face-to-face learning districts choose, they must also be prepared to switch back to distance learning in case a need to shutdown arises again, the guidance states.

“We know what to teach and how to teach,” Brockman said. “It’s the delivery. I think we’re going to see some really creative teaching in the fall. I think (teachers) have more tools in their toolkits.”

With more planning, districts may be able to more adequately address issues such as equity and access — something they have been struggling with during the pandemic.

“For every aspect, we have to ask the questions: Who’s at the table in helping us design this? What access points do kids have? What don’t they have? How do we include each and every kid?” Irish said.

While teachers and districts have gotten creative in how to reach their students from afar, challenges remain, particularly in terms of technology, Francois said.

Improving internet and broadband access could be a place for government entities to help, he said.

“I think we’ve really discovered how close or far you are away from the grid makes a difference in how you are able to access distance learning,” Francois said. “We don’t question that every house should have running water or electricity.”

Getting internet access to all students has been a struggle for the Concrete district.

“You can’t run a class when you know part of your class can’t even watch the class,” Barrett said. “They can’t even watch a video of a teacher teaching a lesson.”

Another challenge with distance learning, whether districts use it entirely or as part of a hybrid model, is how districts will meet the required 1,027 hours of instruction over the course of 180 days.

“Everyday school might not be every day for every kid,” Brockman said. “If that’s not going to happen, how do we stay in compliance with current law?”

It is unclear whether the state will provide waivers for districts that struggle to meet those requirements.

“Districts want to be accountable,” Francois said. “They want to do what they need to be doing, but they need more clarity.”

OSPI has said it will continue to provide guidance throughout the summer.

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, facebook.com/KeraReports

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