Options needed for BI schools

I am a parent of an 8th grader in the Bainbridge Island School District. I am dismayed by how BISD’s decision to start reopening schools was handled. Although I understand that there are families that need this reopening and that the community members involved in the decision have worked hard to follow state and county Health Department guidelines, I feel that their timing, communication and approach has been an unfortunate sign of the times.

I hope the district can be motivated to allow BISD staff and students to choose whether to go into a physical classroom or continue online learning until staff has had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

Families were compelled to make final decisions about whether we were choosing a hybrid learning model or 100% online in November. The new state guidance that relaxed COVID-19 case thresholds came out Dec. 16, and the new virus variants were confirmed in the U.S. Dec. 29. BISD went forward with reopening without giving parents a chance to make new decisions based on the changing virus landscape.

Families were locked in to decisions made before the holiday surges, before the first dose of the vaccine was given in the U.S. and before the state metrics for reopening were modified. Dr. Vin Gupta, who provides clinical and strategic leadership for the University of Washington’s COVID response work, has been saying in recent interviews that it is too early to reopen schools. His educated opinion compels me to believe that the very least our district could have done was to conduct a new survey to get current family decision data prior to their final decision.

An informal survey showed that over half of the board’s constituents were against reopening. Parents have spoken up in the form of a petition signed by nearly 1,200 community members.

Part of the petition stated, “We believe you are ignoring health concerns, cutting corners, and not implementing recommended safety standards in ways that will impact the health of our island.”

A response from Superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen stated, “You are inaccurate in your assertion that we are ‘cutting corners’ and ‘not implementing recommended safety standards’ … My staff has worked diligently since June 2020 in planning and implementing those (state and county) guidelines.”

Another local survey showed that the majority of our teachers are not comfortable returning to school until they have been vaccinated. I believe that all teachers should have the opportunity to get both doses and have a two week waiting period so the vaccine can be at maximum effectiveness before they enter a classroom, without the threat of using all of their sick leave, vacation time or taking leave without pay to do so.

I also believe that teachers who feel comfortable going back into the classroom without being vaccinated should be able to do so, and that families that are comfortable returning as soon as possible should have that opportunity.

I believe that a more flexible approach to reopening is needed. School bus drivers and staff have not been vaccinated.

Since any classroom will need to have procedures in place for quarantine situations, I believe that the district should have a more flexible return to school structure with clear guidance on how students can move gracefully between in person and online options.

We have asked so much of our teachers during this unprecedented time, and adding more responsibilities to their workload is stressful enough without also asking them to return to the classroom before they are vaccinated. They also are taking on the responsibility of keeping everybody safe through sanitation and distancing procedures and worrying about whether they are going to keep their own families safe with the increased exposure they have all had.

I am dismayed that no new guidance has been released by the state or the county based on what experts are saying now about the likelihood that the variants paired with the lack of an effective vaccine rollout thus far will make things worse before they get better, predicting a new surge in March.

The CDC released a report on the B.1.1.7 variant on Jan. 15 stating, “The increased transmissibility of the B.1.1.7 variant warrants rigorous implementation of public health strategies to reduce transmission and lessen the potential impact of B.1.1.7, buying critical time to increase vaccination coverage.

“CDC’s data show that universal use of and increased compliance with mitigation measures and vaccination are crucial to reduce the number of new cases and deaths substantially in the coming months. Further, strategic testing of people without symptoms of COVID-19, but who are at increased risk for infection with SARS-CoV-2, provides another opportunity to limit ongoing spread.

“Collectively, enhanced genomic surveillance combined with increased compliance with public health mitigation strategies, including vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, will be essential to limiting the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and protecting public health.”

Adding to the stress of going back to school in a pandemic, this issue seems to have turned into an ugly island divide. So now it seems like an us vs. them situation between exhausted district decision makers who are trying to do the right thing and families that disagree with them, and between families that want to return and those that are not ready. What we really have, though, is an “us” thing. We are all on the same team, and I don’t think it’s too late to try to communicate with one another.

We now have a new federal administration committed to creating federal guidance instead of the current situation where states have been on their own, and that has been passed down to school districts in the form of school reopening guidance that has compelled district leaders to open schools while giving districts the full responsibility to decide when to do so. Change takes time, and I just want the district to allow for that time to pass so that we may become a little bit more united in our approach.

The habits of blaming and pointing fingers that were fostered during the last administration are hard for us to break. We all want to do what’s best for our kids and our community, but we are all running out of patience now that we’ve hit the one year since COVID-19 appeared in WA milestone. The last four years have taken away many examples of healthy debate we used to be able to access readily, motivating people to end relationships over politics instead of trying to learn from one another.

I miss being allowed to end lively debate on the old “agree to disagree” way for certain circumstances. While there are definitely things in this world that are relationship-ending-worthy, things that are downright dangerous, and things that are plain unacceptable, I’m afraid we all got a little too sure that each of our own paths was the righteous one. Educating our children is an area that we must work together to do what’s best for our families, and this might be an opportunity for us to practice learning to respectfully hear opinions that differ from our own to come to a conclusion that isn’t “mine” or “yours” but “ours”.

Shannon Dowling, Bainbridge Island

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