With administrators and local health leaders seeking a hybrid model to open schools this fall and school staff leaning toward remote learning to start the school year, Sequim school leaders found some middle ground this week.
In a unanimous vote Monday night, Sequim school board directors agreed to a limited opening of schools this September that will see students with special needs and individual education plans (IEPs) attend school in person — with a group of about 25 students at each school building on Mondays and Tuesdays, and a second group of 25 at schools on Thursdays and Fridays — and the rest of Sequim students learning from home.
“I think … it’s a good starting point,” school board president Brandino Gibson said. “I think these are safe numbers to start with.”
Under Sequim schools superintendent Dr. Rob Clark’s plan, the remaining student population would eventually be brought back to school in phases, as health conditions allow, starting with kindergarten and first grade students at the district’s two elementary schools, sixth-graders at Sequim Middle School and ninth-graders at Sequim High.
The re-opening would still follow an “AABB” model, with students divided into two groups. The first group would attend school in person Mondays and Tuesdays, the second on Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays reserved for specialized instruction and professional development.
“The biggest thing on this is we, the community … have to recognize that this is very fluid and we’re going to have to be very flexible with that,” board director Jim Stoffer said.
Olympic Peninsula Academy (OPA), a district alternative learning school-within-a-school that in part supports homeschool learners, will open one day a week for students in grades kindergarten-fifth grade and one day a week for students in grades 6-12; normally OPA is open two days a week for those grade levels.
Clark and a school committee in recent weeks had developed three “hybrid” school re-opening options, including one that had two groups of students attending in-person classes every other week, and another that saw the student population divided into three groups attending in-person classes two of every three weeks. Eventually the re-opening committee narrowed in on the “AABB” model.
But that model did not draw enough support from Sequim school staff to go forward, Clark said Monday night. A survey of more than 120 staffers conducted by the Sequim Education Association indicated 53 percent of those surveyed prefer remote learning to start the year, with the other 47 percent opting for a hybrid opening, he said.
“A small majority did favor starting remote,” he said.
Clark’s alternative, the phased opening, would see about 200 of the district’s 2,400-plus students back in school, Clark said.
“That’s an arbitrary figure; it could be less than that,” he said.
Some of the advantages of a phased hybrid opening, Clark said, is that it gives the district time to fine tune health and safety protocols, establishes a path for students to eventually receive face-to-face learning, is a manageable plan and meets the district’s obligation to provide special education services.
“We have a legal obligation to educate children with IEPs,” he said. “The covid epidemic does not relieve us of that obligation.”
Board director Eric Pickens said, “I appreciate (Clark) making those students a priority.”
All other students, until their grade level is phased back into in-person instruction, will receive virtual instruction from teachers at their school or the district’s newly-formed online school, Dungeness Virtual Academy (DVS).
Students would have the flexibility to change between standard classes and DVS if desired, assistant superintendent Jennifer Maughan said, but she noted administrators advise against that.
“They’re going from one curriculum to another and from one teacher to a completely different teacher,” she said.
Eventually more students would be brought back for in-person instruction if COVID-19 cases remain at a low rate, Clark said. The district would continue to get advice from Clallam County Health Officer) Dr. Allison Unthank, he said.
“Successful operation of this model will generate more students on campus,” Clark said. “This assumes covid cases are continuing at a rate that is acceptable to Dr. Unthank and ourselves.”
The board would not necessarily have to vote to bring another group of students back to campuses for in-person learning, Clark said, but noted he would expect to give the board, staff and parents at least a two-week notice to do so.
“I would not make that decision arbitrarily,” he said. “The trajectory (of COVID-19 cases) would have to be going down.
We have to gauge the apprehension of our staff as well.”
Sequim School District teachers would still report to their school buildings, Clark said, though some may be allowed to teach remotely based on circumstance.
“I’ve spent a lot of time on this (and) I believe we can do this,” Clark said. “I know our staff. I know they’re up for this challenge.”
The superintendent noted that parents/guardians with students in the initial “AABB” in-person instruction should receive contact and instructions from district staff sometime next week.
We can do it; there’s very little doubt in my mind. It’s going to be tough but we owe it to the kids.”
The board’s unanimous vote came after a one-hour virtual workshop that saw staff outline school reopening plans and procedures.
School board approves budget
In other meeting action Monday night, Sequim School District’s board of directors unanimously approved a budget for the 2020-2021 academic year, one that anticipates about $41.2 million in expenditures and keeps about $2.2 million in the general fund balance.
The district received about $23.8 million in state apportionment based on enrollment, and about $6.8 million in local tax dollars through the district’s Education Programs and Operations (EP&O) levy.
The budget anticipates an enrollment of 2,636 full-time students in 2020-2021 (including OPA and Running Start students).
Darlene Apeland, the district’s director of business operations, said district officials used historic enrollment figures over the last several years to gauge the number of anticipated students.
“I’ve been worried about that (enrollment figure),” she said. “Some of the families previously were questioning (keeping students home) when really they could just work remotely.”
Principals have been contacting those families to make sure students stay connected with their teachers learning remotely or in class, Apeland said.
“I have heard there are students moving into our area,” she said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that our enrollment may not drop, but (that it) actually might grow.”
Clark said he and other superintendents are also concerned with what enrollment will look like.
“It’s always a guess when you consider enrollment,” Clark said. “We wanted to do as conservative a number as possible.”
The district will employee about 17 less employees in various roles than last school year.
“That is reflective in the decline of enrollment, not because of COVID, not because of other situations,” Clark said. “When you lose students, you lose revenue.”
He also stressed that the board needs to prepare for putting an EP&O levy to voters in 2021, on that makes up nearly $7 million of the district’s $41 million budget.
“We can’t run this school district in any shape and form without that levy,” Clark said.
“It is crucial that this levy be supported.”
The board meets – virtually – on Monday, Aug. 10, for a workshop. Among the anticipated agenda items, Clark said, are school reopening plans, board/superintendent goals, EP&O levy proposals, legislative goals and more. No official school board action is taken at workshops.
The board of directors have a regular board meeting set for 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 17. See www.sequimschools.org for more information.