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After beginning the school year in a mostly online fashion, two Skagit County school districts announced Tuesday they intend to shift to a hybrid model, bringing back their youngest students to campuses.

The Sedro-Woolley School District will bring back its kindergarten through second grade students. The Concrete School District will bring back its kindergarten and first grade students.

“We really felt like it was important that we get kids back in with teachers as quick as possible,” Concrete School District Superintendent Wayne Barrett said. “Especially our young ones. The virtual learning is tough for them.”

The two districts will start their hybrid models Oct. 5. Families in both districts will still have the option to continue with online-only learning.

“There’s nothing better than in-person learning,” Sedro-Woolley School District Superintendent Phil Brockman said. “Bringing (in-person learning) in at least two days a week is going to be beneficial for our students.”

In the two districts, students will be separated into what are called cohorts to reduce the number of students in each class, and will attend in-person classes two days a week. They will spend the other three days a week learning online.

“Taking this approach will allow the district to maximize social distancing and health and safety in our buildings,” a news release from the Sedro-Woolley School District states.

Sedro-Woolley School Board President Christina Jepperson said the plan is part of the back to school plan the board approved in July.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Jepperson said. “I’m a little hesitant, only because I feel like we’re experimenting a little bit with our kiddos and our teachers, but with our (COVID-19) numbers being so low ... I feel like we have to have a jumping off point, a starting point.”

In Sedro-Woolley, students will attend their usual elementary schools, Brockman said.

The two districts started school Sept. 8. Over the past two weeks, district staff were waiting to see if there would be an increase in COVID-19 cases following the Labor Day holiday, Barrett and Brockman said.

On Monday, the end of the two-week period in which a holiday spike would have occurred, districts met with Skagit County Public Health staff, Barrett said. Without seeing that spike, they chose to move forward with hybrid plans.

“We feel like it’s imperative we get, especially these young kids, in to get them started,” Barrett said.

The districts chose to bring back the youngest students first because they are some of the most vulnerable, Brockman said.

“(With) their attention span, it’s hard for them to stay attentive on Zoom and Loom,” he said. “Our upper grades can be more self-directed and take more responsibility for their learning.”

Once the students have transitioned back to in-person learning, the districts will come up with plans to bring back other students.

“We’ll monitor our (COVID-19) rates from there and hopefully we’ll be able to phase in every two to three weeks,” Brockman said. “Depending on how our system is holding up.”

Students and staff who return to classrooms will have to abide by health and safety measures, including mandatory face coverings, physical distancing when possible, frequent hand-washing and regular cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces and common spaces.

“Hopefully people (will be) masking up and protecting each other from the disease so that we can continue to have in-person school,” Brockman said.

That Sedro-Woolley district has also worked to improve ventilation and air quality in its buildings, the release states.

Returning students to buildings means bringing back such operations as food service and transportation, which the Sedro-Woolley district put on pause at the beginning of the year, Brockman said. Restarting those operations will allow the district to bring back some of its furloughed workers, he said.

In Concrete, students will attend for half days, with some students attending in the mornings and some in the afternoons, Barrett said. Each class will have about 10 students, he said.

Having half days will increase the amount of transportation needed for students, Barrett said, which will raise the district’s transportation costs.

According to the release from the Sedro-Woolley district, middle and high school students will not return to buildings until new cases of COVID-19 in Skagit County decrease to less than 25 cases per 100,000 residents for a 14-day period — which is also the standard under Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan to allow the county to move into the next phase of reopening.

While all of Skagit County’s seven public school districts have had small groups of students on campus — mainly special education and English language learners — only the Conway School District began its year in a hybrid fashion, having its kindergarten and first graders on site as well.

The Anacortes, Burlington-Edison and Mount Vernon school districts are not yet going to hybrid models, though district officials say they are looking at ways to bring more students on campuses.

The Burlington-Edison and Mount Vernon districts had announced plans to continue mostly-remote learning through Dec. 18.

“We are working with our local health officials and collaborating with our neighboring districts to share plans and a timeline for some sort of hybrid model,” said Todd Setterlund, the Burlington-Edison School District’s executive director of teaching, learning and communications. “Different districts have different challenges. We’re addressing the Burlington-specific needs.”

Mount Vernon School District Superintendent Ismael Vivanco said his district is keeping track of COVID-19 data specific to the zip codes the district serves.

Its ”Remote Plus” plan affords the district flexibility in bringing students back on campuses, he said.

“We want to make sure we’re crossing our T’s and dotting our I’s,” Vivanco said. “We’re continuing to move in that direction by gradually making increments in our Plus model.”

Anacortes School District Superintendent Justin Irish said the district will look at having either its kindergarten and first grade students or its kindergarten through third grade students returning to in-person learning by the end of October, but that the district is taking the process slowly to work through logistics such as transportation.

“What we do with (the younger students) will have impact on the secondary (students),” he said.

Another factor to consider is that with in-person learning not every student will have contact with their teacher every day, like they do with the district’s online learning plan.

“When we move to an in-person model the teacher is going to be busy and will not be able to check in (every day),” Irish said. “That is a problem we have to navigate.”

The La Conner School District, which was one of the last in the county to start the school year and is in its second week of instruction, is not yet ready to move to a hybrid model, other than for the small groups of students it already has on site, Superintendent Rich Stewart said.

With the possibility of having to shut down and move back to an online system, the district wants more time to make sure its current remote plan works, and that all of its students are able to access the online learning platform, Stewart said.

“We want to make sure that what we have going now is working,” Stewart said. “If you start going too quickly, you’re leaving people in the dust.”

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

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