Clallam County school districts were ahead of the curve with COVID-19 hybrid reopenings last year and were preparing for students to return to full-time, in-person classes in early September, district officials said.
“It’s an exciting step, and we’re glad to welcome our students and families back,” said Martin Brewer, superintendent of Port Angeles School District, which will resume classes on Sept. 2.
Students and teachers will be required to wear masks indoors when in-person school resumes. The state masking requirement for schools is independent of local regulations like the Clallam County mask mandate for indoor public spaces that took effect Aug. 16.
Mask breaks are planned for students who attend in person for full days five days a week when the Sequim School District resumes instruction on Sept. 1.
Students and staff will wear masks inside as required. However, “we will take scheduled mask breaks so they aren’t sitting there for six or seven hours without a break,” superintendent Jane Pryne said.
Sequim has hired additional personnel to help with spacing at lunches and is following all recommended cleaning protocols, she said.
High school students will have an opportunity to find relief from face masks between classes, she said, adding that Dr. Allison Berry, public health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, has said that elementary school students can play outdoors with their masks off.
“If that changes, we will accommodate,” Pryne said.
The issue of whether masks should be required was the overwhelming topic of public comments at the three most recent Sequim School Board meetings.
Several parents advocated at July 19 and Aug. 4 meetings for a relaxing of the mask mandates for the 2021-2022 school year.
Parent Beth Smithson asked the board to allow students to take their masks off when they are more than 3 feet apart and to spend more time outside.
“Do you think this is a relaxing environment?” she asked directors. “If you care for the well-being of our children, help us come up with a solution.”
At the school board’s Aug. 16 meeting, board directors heard written statements from a dozen parents urging the board to keep a mask requirement in place.
Parent Courtney Thomas similarly urged the board to keep students in masks during the school day.
As a parent, our number one job is to protect our children; we would do anything to keep them safe,” she said. “Why would we risk it? Sure they (masks) are annoying. Are we willing to trade an annoyance for our children’s safety?”
Others asked for more conversation between parents and school officials to form a decision about masking.
“I believe local school boards should be making decision what’s best for their districts,” board director Brian Kuh said Monday.
“(The issue) isn’t directly in our hands,” school board president Brandino Gibson said.
“All of your comments ideas and thoughts are in our mind; we’re taking them in consideration. Number one … is the safety of our kids.”
Many districts also are offering a continuation of remote learning for those who want to study at home.
“It’s just going to be an adjustment,” said Diana Reaume, superintendent of the Quillayute Valley School District in Forks, which will resume classes on Sept. 1.
“I think this is a real pivotal time in education. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think we’re going to change the way we do business.”
Face masks have not been an issue in the Cape Flattery School District, which resumes classes on Sept. 2
“We have not been faced with the same challenges that other districts have had in regard to mask wearing,”Superintendent Michelle Parkin said.
“Our students have been very receptive … and our communities are very supportive” of the need to wear face masks,” she said. “We have not had the same challenges of push-back.”
Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to announce this week whether teachers will be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
“I may very well have some employees that would quit before they would be vaccinated,” said David Bingham, superintendent of Crescent School District which resumes classes on Sept. 2.
“That could make it difficult for a small, rural district in a hurry if the labor force evaporated.”
Brewer said he did not know how many Port Angeles School District staff had been vaccinated as of Friday. School districts will collect immunization information prior to the school year, he said.
“I know folks are angry on both sides,” Reaume said.
“But we really, more than ever, right now, need to come together to get our kids back in school. They’re the ones that are suffering.”
Quillayute Valley in Forks and Crescent School District in Joyce were among the first in the state to reopen for in-person learning with hybrid schedules last year. Other districts in the county followed shortly thereafter.
Students were split into groups with some attending in person and some learning online to limit class sizes.
“I believe that Clallam County did a phenomenal job of returning to students on campus much earlier than the rest of the state,” Brewer said.
“Many schools, 75 percent of students across the state, did not return to campus until the governor ordered them to come back on April 19.”
COVID-19 safety precautions used by local school districts will carry over to September, Brewer said.
Health officials reported no COVID-19 transmission in Clallam County schools last year.
“The only challenge is we’re going from a hybrid schedule to 100 percent of our students returning full day, every day, which will double the amount of students on campus at any one time,” Brewer said.
Given the need for more students in each classroom, the state has relaxed its physical distancing recommendations from 6 feet to 3 feet, Brewer said
“Our staff did a phenomenal job last year of executing those mitigation strategies, and I expect the same this year,” Brewer said.
Quillayute Valley hired an extra counselor to help students who may be coping with depression and anxiety related to the pandemic and long-term substitute teachers to help the staff, Reaume said.
“I’m confident in our team,” she added.
“We did it last year and had absolutely zero transmission within the school. I know we’ll be able to do it again.”
Brewer said the Port Angeles School District was looking to hire bus drivers and paraeducators.
Anyone interested applying for those positions can visit the district’s website, portangelesschools.org.
“They’re critical roles within our system,” Brewer said.
“So that’s my biggest challenge, as of Aug. 13.”
Cape Flattery is now updating its safety plans, Parkin said.
Last year, the district put into place a preventative screening program of batch testing staff every two weeks.
“This year, we will expand this to our unvaccinated students and our athletes,” she said, noting that all students under 12 are unvaccinated.
The safety plan will include provisions for a large outbreak in the community as well as the ability to contact trace students.
The plan is being drafted now and will be presented to the school board later this month.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into opening the school doors. One of the blessings is the staff is so supportive of doing what’s best for the children,” Parkin said.