Sequim-area students, teachers and staff will have a plan for what a return to school looks like this fall by early August.
That plan may be, for most students, not immediately returning to classrooms.
Sequim School District’s board of directors agreed on July 20 to bump up the date of their vote on the district’s reopening plans from Aug. 17 to Aug. 3.
Board members expressed a hesitancy to back one of the three “hybrid” models superintendent Dr. Rob Clark and a school reopening committee have proposed in recent weeks, as school officials seek to offer an educational plan while maintaining heath and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I can’t in good conscience approve a plan … that sends hundreds of students into school buildings,” board vice president Eric Pickens said.
“I know there is no other place I’d rather be this fall than in a classroom with students,” said Pickens, who teaches in the Port Angeles School District. “I wish things could change drastically in a month or so, but I’m extremely skeptical that will happen at this point.
“The acceptable death rate for students and staff is zero.”
Following a district-wide survey of parents and staff, a committee examining options for in-person school reopening highlighted three primary options for a “hybrid” schedule for students: an “AA/BB” model that sees students divided into two groups, with each attending classes in person two days a week (Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday, for example) and remote learning the other three weekdays; an “AB” model, in which one group of students attends class in person one week while the other learns remotely, then switches the following week; or an “A/B/C” model, with two or three student groups attending class in person, then rotating, so that pupils are on campus two out of three weeks.
Clark said the school reopening committee was leaning toward the “AA/BB” model.
However, school board directors noted that the rise in COVID-19 cases both on the Olympic Peninsula and statewide, along with concerns they’ve heard from parents and staff, have them considering the option of starting the school year as the 2019-2020 school year ended: with students learning remotely.
Board director Larry Jeffryes said he’s concerned with the prospect of seeing a COVID-19 case or cases in Sequim schools forcing buildings or the entire district to shut down.
Additionally, he said, students can be transmitters of the disease not only to themselves but parents and grandparents.
“We don’t really know what is going to happen when we put them in a schools,” Jeffryes said. “Until the community get the numbers down, it’s going to be tough to open.
“I have some real reservations of jumping into blended learning in September,” he said.
Board president Brandino Gibson said opinions about the reopening plan are all over the proverbial map.
“We have parents who absolutely think we shouldn’t open our doors and we have parents who believe we should open our doors every day,” he said.
Even if Sequim schools open remotely, Gibson said, the district needs to be able to provide psychological and emotional support for students during the school year.
Pickens added that the district needs to provide Sequim students with the technology they need, such as laptop computers and internet access.
Clark said that a number of school districts across the state have already locked in a plan to start the year with remote learning only, but that they are primarily larger districts.
“When you all hired me you hired me to be the superintendent of the Sequim School District,” he said.
“I have to make recommendations that are unique to Sequim, or Clallam County.
“Right now, I believe it’s best for our school district to start with some (sort of) hybrid model. I believe we have the people who can pull that off.”
Clark added,“I think we can clean the buildings … take the kids’ temperatures and monitor the situation. I think the kids need the social aspect of school. We do our best when we teach face to face.
“I don’t make this recommendation lightly. I believe I’m looking at it through the lens as what’s best for kids.”
The school reopening committee is scheduled to meet once more, on July 28, prior to the board’s decision on Aug. 3.
“My strong inclination is to lean toward our CEO’s recommendation (but) this is a decision that has no right answer,” director Brian Kuh said. “Whatever decision we make will be wrong in many regards.”
Board directors were also scheduled to make a decision on Aug. 17, about two weeks prior to the start of school.
Sequim schools are scheduled to open Wednesday, Sept. 2.
“I am concerned (that we will) make a decision on Aug. 17; I think that’s too late for a parents,” Jeffryes said.
“I would like to approve a plan sooner than later,” director Jim Stoffer said. “We owe it to these parents and families in our area.”
Sequim schools began remote learning on March 16 and state leaders closed all public schools a day later. Sequim students, along with other students across Washington state, spent the next three months learning remotely to close out the 2019-2020 school year.
On June 11, state schools superintendent Chris Reykdal said all Washington state schools will be required to develop a plan to open schools in the fall. But he also noted it would be “almost impossible” that all Washington state schools would be able to offer in-person education for all students.
“We’re far worse now than we were in mid-March,” Pickens said Monday.