School buildings across county may remain closed this fall

The parking lot of Anacortes Middle School, home of the district office, remains empty Wednesday. It may stay that way this fall as school officials in Anacortes and across Skagit County begin to lean toward remote learning as the best option for the coming school year.

The prospects for in-house learning at Skagit County schools this fall appear to be growing dimmer.

With COVID-19 pandemic cases on the rise, nearly all school districts in the county this week started shifting their plans for the upcoming school year.

After initially proposing a hybrid in-person and remote option a few weeks ago, the Anacortes School Board recommended Tuesday that new Superintendent Justin Irish start planning instead for a mostly remote option. The board also moved the start of school to mid-September.

“I know that the best model is face-to-face instruction,” Irish said at the virtual board meeting. “And I know that we are unable to provide that option for our kids the best we want to right now.”

Then on Wednesday, the Sedro-Woolley School District announced it also intended to pursue a remote option.

“We feel like we just don’t have a choice,” said Sedro-Woolley School District Superintendent Phil Brockman.

After a Wednesday meeting with stakeholders, the Concrete School District also decided to focus on online plans, Superintendent Wayne Barrett said.

The county’s largest district, the Mount Vernon School District, had announced Monday that it would initiate the Remote Plus plan, with students working remotely at least through December.

District Superintendent Ismael Vivanco told the Skagit Valley Herald on Tuesday that it wasn’t what they wanted, “but because of the increase in infection rates in our county and state, it’s really a decision that we feel will work best for our school to have a safe and healthy start.”

After a Wednesday committee meeting, which included students, La Conner School District Superintendent Rich Stewart said that district would also look at remote plans.

Although the students on the committee said they missed being in school, they felt it was not safe to return now, Stewart said.

“Those are powerful voices,” he said.

The Burlington-Edison School Board also discussed having to focus on remote learning.

“I think it’s going to be tough to go face-to-face right now,” Burlington-Edison School District Superintendent Laurel Browning said. “This is not anybody’s first choice.”

None of the county’s seven school boards have yet approved official remote plans, but by having their administrators pursue that option, districts are hoping to be able to focus on delivering a solid plan to their communities.

“Every district right now is grappling with time,” Irish said. “With a longer ramp for planning, we can be more thoughtful.”

The districts have said they plan on having additional support for some of their most at-risk and in-need students.

“The one thing that I’m most proud of is our staff recognizes that we have kids that are going to need additional support,” Concrete’s Barrett said. “And they’re willing to bring them in one-on-one. That’s one of the things that we can do as a small district that some of the larger ones can’t.”

Districts that choose a remote learning model must still identify child care options for children whose guardians cannot stay home; address gaps in connectivity and technology so each student can access their online learning; continue providing school meals for students who need them; and determine how to get extra support to those who need it, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in an earlier news release.

All districts will need to have daily attendance and student engagements, weekly schedules and assignments, and meet the day and hour requirements for learning set by the state, Reykdal said.

Local officials say that means online learning will look a lot different than it did in the spring.

“If we’re going into a remote learning model, then we have to make it the best we can,” Brockman said. “Our staff is up for the challenge. We know it’s going to be difficult, but we’re up for the challenge.”

In Anacortes, the change in direction was brought about by a variety of factors, including the amount of time it would take to get students — in groups much smaller than usual — into their seats and ready to learn.

Safety requirements would include daily health screenings for all entering a building. Doing so will take time, whether it occurs before a student gets on a reduced-capacity bus or at the window of a vehicle when the student is dropped off. Irish and his team predicted screening would take about 90 seconds per student.

By the time actual learning was ready to happen, the school day would have dropped to about 255 minutes — 78 minutes less than the state-mandated amount of time for daily learning, according to the Anacortes district.

“We know that this model isn’t going to work,” Irish said.

Another concern is the teaching staff. To accommodate smaller class sizes of about 12 students per room, the district would need 33 in-person teachers at one of its three elementary schools, the district estimated.

“We don’t have (that),” Irish said. “Every teacher who is going to be teaching (remotely) is one fewer teacher that isn’t going to be in the brick and mortar school.”

With a hybrid model, there’s also the question of which teachers work online and which in person.

On July 22, the Washington Education Association, the union representing many certificated and classified school district employees, released a statement calling on Gov. Jay Inslee to declare all schools move to remote models for the fall.

“We believe that the time between now and the beginning of the school year must be spent preparing educators to teach remotely, not on hybrid models or planning for in-person teaching,” the statement said. “Making this decision now will give school districts and educators time to prepare and focus on a singular model of instruction and to better prepare for the challenges that a distance-learning model will bring.”

The ongoing pandemic has forced districts and educators to choose between two “not great” options, said Summer Stoner, a Bellingham teacher who is president of the WEA Fourth Corner, which serves educators in Island, San Juan, Skagit, Whatcom and parts of Snohomish counties.

While teachers prefer face-to-face interactions with their students, if schools go back to in-person learning, others are likely to be exposed, she said.

“Some may recover and be fine; some may have lasting health conditions,” she said. “The really scary fact is some will die. I think that is what is weighing heavily on educators and administrators.”

Other questions have abounded, such as how to get children bused to school. Will the district have to run more bus routes? Stagger schedules? Who will do the health screenings, particularly on the bus where the driver is expected to focus on the road, not take temperatures or enforce physical distancing?

“You pull back one layer of the onion, and there’s another one,” Irish said.

In Sedro-Woolley, the district had already gone through the effort of measuring each of its classrooms to see what it could accommodate in order to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, Brockman said. Then, COVID-19 case numbers started to rise.

“We’re just not able to do it until we have better safety measures in place for our kids and staff,” Brockman said.

In Anacortes, as the questions mounted, so did the cost.

“This is the largest state unfunded mandate I’ve had to deal with,” ASD Business Director Dave Cram said of his 24 years in school finance. “We are in the upwards of millions of dollars just to try to operate in this model.”

A question districts face with an online model is how much funding they will receive from the state.

Irish said he had heard discussions from state officials stating that apportionment would remain mostly the same, but they would likely lose transportation dollars.

“The impact of that is going to be felt for longer than just a year,” said Barrett, whose district generally buses about 90% of its students. “If we don’t have buses running, what happens to those (drivers)? And then down the road, what happens when we come back to school and we need them and they’re not there?”

With the state facing an estimated at least $7 billion revenue shortage because of the pandemic, districts are worried what the future might look like, especially when it’s time to safely move back to buildings.

“It’s imperative that we get our fiscal support from our state around teaching and learning,” Brockman said. “That’s the paramount duty. When we go back to every day school, we have to have all hands on deck.”

Another challenge districts face in a hybrid model is the possibility of having to close down again if the pandemic worsens.

As a result, Reykdal has said that districts that do move toward a hybrid model must also have a remote-only option ready.

“It doesn’t seem like that back and forth is a really good education design,” Browning in Burlington-Edison said. “If we were in Phase 3, or Phase 4, we’d all feel a little better about it.”

Skagit County remains in Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan to reopen Washington. Counties are not being allowed to progress to higher phases at this time due to growing virus numbers around the state.

Skagit County Public Health has not announced what plan it thinks is best for any county schools, instead saying the department has been working with individual districts.

“We know that COVID-19 spreads easily in group settings, so it is important to assure precautions are taken such as distancing, masking, hand washing and limited group sizes,” Skagit County spokesperson Laura Gelwicks said in an email. “The schools have significant challenges to navigate and they are working very hard to get the students back in the classroom safely and Public Health has been happy to try and help.”

According to state Department of Health data, 12% of Skagit County’s confirmed cases have been in people between ages 0-19, with at least one child being hospitalized.

“(COVID-19) certainly is less impactful, statistically, to young people, but it turns out they get it and they spread it,” Reykdal said in a July 22 video about schools’ reopening plans. “Particularly high school age kids are likely to spread it just as much as adults.”

With time running out on summer, many questions remain.

“People are looking for answers,” Brockman said. “We’re the ones that are going to have to find those solutions.”

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

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