MOUNT VERNON — In the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations are finding new ways to conduct business.
For the Mount Vernon School Board, which held its regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday, that included using technology to allow four of the five school board members — and future Superintendent Ismael Vivanco — to join the meeting via conferencing app Zoom.
“This is the new normal,” School Board President Larry Otos said at the nearly empty board meeting at Madison Elementary School. “We don’t know how long it will be, but if we have humility and innovation ... I think we’ll make it.”
Seven people — including Otos and Superintendent Carl Bruner — were physically at the meeting. Bruner explained steps the district has taken in the week since Gov. Jay Inslee shut down schools throughout the state to help slow the spread of the disease.
“We’re dealing with something we’ve never, ever had to deal with before,” Bruner said. “Things are changing rapidly.”
Forty-one states and the District of Columbia have mandated lengthy school closures, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said Thursday. One state has shut down its schools for the rest of the academic year.
Washington schools are closed through at least April 24. The academic year has been extended through June 19, although districts have the option to go beyond that, Reykdal said.
As schools prepared to close late last week, Bruner said districts had three main priorities. Chief among those was how to continue to provide meals to its children.
With schools closing at the end of the school day Monday, districts in Skagit County have begun packing meals for students. Districts are exploring different models, including what are called grab and go bags that parents can pick up from designated sites, and delivery options.
All children are eligible for the free meals.
On Tuesday, the first day of the school closure, Bruner said the district had 740 bags picked up. On Wednesday, that number increased to 1,038, he said.
The district expects that number to increase as it begins additional pick-up sites.
“We certainly have the ability and the intention to drive to an area that is centrally located,” Bruner said.
After providing food, the next priority for the school districts is child care. Districts have been working to find emergency child care options for families that meet certain criteria, including those where parents or guardians work in health care or are first responders.
Beginning next Monday, the Mount Vernon School District will offer emergency child care at each of its six elementary schools, Bruner said.
The district has received requests for child care for about 35 of its 7,000 students, he said.
At each of the elementary schools, children will be cared for by paraeducators in groups of less than 10, which is the state Department of Health’s current standard for safety.
The third priority of the school districts has been to find ways to allow students to continue learning.
For some districts that has meant sending home instructional packets. For some, the packets will be a placeholder until digital formats can be established.
In Mount Vernon, Bruner said the district is getting ready to roll out an online learning component out as early as next week.
High school seniors, Bruner said, are a top priority, especially those who may be struggling to get the credits they need to graduate.
“We want to be able to support them with their credit retrieval,” Bruner said.
While online learning “is not a replacement for face to face” learning, Reykdal said all school districts in the state will have some methods in place to be able to reach its students during the next six weeks.
Also at the Mount Vernon meeting Wednesday, the board approved a resolution that gives Bruner extended powers during this crisis, as recommended by the Washington State School Directors’ Association.
That move allows superintendents to make decisions without having to first seek board approval.
Going forward, more districts will likely move to digital meetings, including live-streaming their meetings for the public.
In a webinar Thursday, Reykdal said that his office was working on short-, mid- and long-term plans for everything from testing to how to continue to pay school employees should the shutdown last longer than the six weeks.