Though many students in Skagit County have returned to their classrooms, local public school districts are still facing challenges that come with hybrid learning.
Countywide, about 85% of students have returned to in-person learning in hybrid models — part in-person, part online.
While getting students back on campuses has brought back cherished classroom moments, school districts are still navigating the frequently changing world of post-pandemic education, while also operating two educational models for their students.
“There’s just so many different challenges,” Mount Vernon School District Superintendent Ismael Vivanco said. “This is all new to all of us.”
Some of those challenges, educators say, are staffing issues, transportation and food service struggles, and changing guidance.
On March 15, when Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation that requires all schools to have an in-person learning option for all students, new challenges arose.
“All along we’ve been taking these measured steps,” Vivanco said. “We’ve been learning to crawl and then we’re walking and now we’re running. But then they put a new measure in place and we’re back to walking.”
Under Inslee’s proclamation, students are required to be offered both an online-only option and a hybrid option where students spend at least 30% of instructional time in schools by April 5 for those in kindergarten through sixth grade and by April 19 for students in seventh through 12th grades.
While all of Skagit County’s seven public school districts are already in compliance with the proclamation by at least having plans to return all students to in-person learning, the amount of time students in various grade levels spend on campuses varies.
In Burlington-Edison, Inslee’s proclamation meant the district had to add additional in-person time for its high school students, said Todd Setterlund, the district’s executive director of teaching, learning and communications.
That, in turn, led to other logistical issues for the district, he said.
While the district has been providing its older students — seventh grade and up — with grab-and-go meals as they left their campuses for the day, the district’s younger students have had their lunch periods in classrooms that are staffed by instructional assistants so teachers can have their own lunch periods, Setterlund said.
“We don’t have the staffing capacity to do that beyond sixth grade,” Setterlund said.
Now that the older students are on campuses longer, the district has to find a way to give them physically-distanced lunch periods.
And while new guidance from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health says students in classrooms can now be 3 feet apart instead of 6, the 6-foot rule still applies for meals.
As the Anacortes School District works toward bringing its students on campus five days a week, that 6-foot rule for meals puts a strain on its lunchroom space and on its staff, Superintendent Justin Irish said.
“We can’t fit all of our kids in lunchrooms 6 feet apart,” Irish said.
Like others, the Anacortes district is struggling with hiring.
“We have limited substitutes,” Irish said. “Daily, we’re scrambling to even fill vacancies now.”
Lunchrooms aren’t the only places where staffing is an issue.
While running two separate education programs — in-person and online — districts have had to get creative with their staffing.
“We’re trying to run two programs with the same number of staff,” Vivanco said.
What that may look like is a teacher from one school leading an online class of students from all schools, Setterlund said. And with fewer students allowed in classrooms, other certificated staff have had to step in.
Like Anacortes, the Burlington-Edison and Mount Vernon school districts have had to hire more staff to keep up with their hybrid learning needs.
In Mount Vernon, that includes hiring staff to partner with local child care providers, especially during the time where the district was offering instruction only online, Vivanco said.
A big challenge for many districts is the logistics of providing transportation.
While districts have been running buses in some form since the start of the pandemic, the return of more students to buildings has created additional challenges.
Previously, one bus would pick up all students on its route, regardless of what grade they were in, Vivanco said. With schedules being different among the elementary, middle and high school levels, districts are having to run more buses to make sure students get to and from school on time, Vivanco said.
“We’re trying to run multiple bus routes with the same number of drivers,” he said.
Many of the additional steps districts have had to take to accommodate hybrid learning are costly, Vivanco said. Districts are hoping state and federal relief funding will help fill the gaps.
As with at the beginning of the pandemic, guidelines are changing regularly, which is another challenge.
With each rule change comes a transition period for schools.
“We redesigned the entire educational system,” Irish said. “You just can’t turn the ship quickly.”
With the new guidance that students in classrooms can be 3 feet apart, districts will have to take another look at everything they put in place under the 6-foot guideline.
“Everything we do, every decision we make has to be OK’d by the Department of Health,” Irish said.
The COVID-19 vaccine becoming more available and educators becoming eligible to receive it has allowed for more flexibility when it comes to reopening schools, administrators say.
“Once people started getting shots in arms it started getting easier,” Setterlund said. “That was a real game-changer when they opened it up for teachers.”
The Department of Health’s new 3-foot guidance is prompting the Anacortes district to work toward bringing back as many students as it can to its campuses five days a week.
“It’s more contact time with kids, and that matters,” Irish said. “It will be a great opportunity for our staff, students and families to understand a predictable routine of what this looks like before the summer so that, come fall, we can understand what this will look like. Our goal is to create as much as possible an experience for our students and staff like it was pre-COVID.”
While it’s uncertain what the fall will look like, the districts are doing everything they can to make sure students, staff and communities are safe, Vivanco said.
“We’re trying to do the best we can for what we’ve been hired to do,” he said. “We have a great team that has put in countless hours that has allowed us to get to where we are today.”
With access to buildings limited to students and staff, Vivanco said the district welcomes questions about what it is doing to keep families safe.
“It truly does take the community, all of us together, to continue to see our way through this,” he said. “We’re going to get through this together and every day we’re closer. We see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
— This story is part of an occasional series on how this community is pushing forward — through and eventually past — the COVID-19 pandemic that reached Skagit County in March 2020.