With new COVID-19 cases increasing at a fast pace, Mount Vernon School District staff are preparing for the likelihood of temporarily returning to online learning.

Superintendent Ismael Vivanco said he’s reviewed data from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and is expecting staffing shortages as more teachers and support staff call in sick.

Vivanco said he wants to prioritize in-person education, and plans to treat each school on a case-by-case basis. While he hopes to give parents a few days of warning if a school will shift back to online learning, he acknowledged there could as little as one day’s warning.

Vivanco said he isn’t sure what proportion of staff absences would result in a move to remote learning, and will be determining a course of action based on state and local Public Health guidelines, and on conversations with principals, nurses and the district’s executive director of student support services.

He said the district is communicating with teachers, asking them to be prepared to return to online learning on short notice, and to remind students to do the same, “so we don’t get caught off-guard.”

Vivanco said staff are good at covering for each other. On days when many teachers are out sick without available substitutes, principals and other administrative employees have stepped in to oversee students.

However, he said if a school sees two to four days of significant staff absences, and if the data anticipates more increases in COVID infections in the community, he said the district would likely make the decision to go to online learning.

“If we’re seeing a pattern, that’s the kind of thing that will prompt us to go to remote learning,” Vivanco said. “We’re going to do our best to predict where we might be needing to go, and give our communities the most advance information we can.”

He said individual classrooms have had to go remote for periods this year, but that he hasn’t had to make that decision for an entire school.

The greatest surges of the omicron variant are expected from mid-January to early February, he said, citing the University of Washington predictions.

School Board President Larry Otos said he expects a return to online learning would last one to three weeks. It would be necessary if staffing isn’t there to support in-person education.

“If we can’t deliver those services to our students effectively, it’s better to go to a remote-learning scenario,” he said.

Otos said the district has made sure every student has access to a laptop, and the district has the ability to send buses with Wi-Fi access to areas that need them.

He acknowledged parents struggle with finding child care on short notice, but said uncertain times require additional planning.

“During this period of time, I think everyone needs to plan differently,” Otos said. “When (school) become disrupted, it’s important for everybody to have a backup plan.”

Because of a statewide vaccine mandate for school employees, Vivanco said he’s confident most employees who test positive for COVID-19 will be protected from severe illness, and will still be able to work from home while they wait until they’re no longer contagious.

Similarly, those who are quarantining after being in close contact with an infected person should be able to teach while they await a negative test, he said.

“The quarantine could be overwhelming if we have high case numbers,” Vivanco said.

Infections in the school district haven’t been a significant problem, he said. Since returning to in-person learning in September, 350 students have tested positive for COVID-19 with only six of the cases traced back to in-school transmission.

— Reporter Brandon Stone: bstone@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2112, Twitter: @Brandon_SVH

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