The Bainbridge Island School Board was obviously reluctant but still voted 4-1 Thursday night to return to in-person learning.
The schedule is to start Jan. 25 with pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, fifth and sixth grades. Second-, third- and fourth-graders would begin Jan. 27, with seventh- and eighth-graders starting up Feb. 1.
High schoolers, which also had been set to start Feb. 1, will instead be delayed until Feb. 22. By then construction on buildings will be done, so fencing will be removed, giving more space for social distancing.
All of the dates are contingent on COVID-19 numbers.
Board member Mike Spence cast the lone dissenting vote. He even apologized to the others for it.
“There’s no need to apologize,” fellow board member Christine Hulet said. “Those are valid concerns.”
Spence is concerned about the “huge swing” in direction when it comes to COVID numbers. “They moved the goal post,” he said of the Kitsap Public Health District, Department of Health and Gov. Jay Inslee.
The school district decided not to reopen in November because of KPHD safety guidelines on coronavirus numbers. But they changed the guidelines and even though the county’s numbers are much higher now it’s supposedly safe to open?
“It’s the highest infection rate ever,” Spence said. “At some point we’re going to have to hold our noses and jump. But I’m not ready to go now.”
Spence said with hundreds of emails and 436 people watching that Zoom meeting it is easily the most controversial issue he’s seen on his 12 years on the school board. He understands the desire of parents wanting to return kids to school. He said his daughter being a senior last year and not being able to go to school in the spring was one of his hardest challenges ever as a parent.
But he just couldn’t understand while, since they waited this long, why they couldn’t wait a few weeks to watch the numbers drop some. “There’s never going to be a risk-free scenario,” he said. “I just don’t see the gain right now.”
Despite voting in favor, Hulet also had reservations. She said her family has gotten used to at-home learning and other COVID restrictions. “We have found our routine,” she said. “Based on my family… I would say stay the course.”
But what works for us has not worked for others, she added. “Some families are desperate to return. So let’s proceed very, very carefully.”
She said she’s glad the high school startup has been delayed, since the state advises a phased-in approach for returning students. But she’s still concerned that teachers and staff are returning before getting the COVID vaccine. “The unknown fear is real,” she said. “This is a huge ask of teachers and staff.”
Hulet asked that the district be flexible, even with the board’s vote of approval. “We need to pivot when we need to pivot,” she said. “This is not a no-risk decision. It’s another transition in a year full of turmoil.”
Superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen provided information about the benefits of returning.
He said many neighboring counties have had in-person instruction, some for months, such as in Jefferson and Clallam counties. Peninsula, Mercer Island and other Kitsap schools have opened more recently.
“Don’t BI kids deserve the same opportunity?” he asked.
He said some of his colleagues in districts that have reopened said some families opted out at first but when they saw how well things were going after a while they took their kids in.
He added that kids are excited about being back and following all the protocols to keep people safe. Not a single person has said they wished they hadn’t returned, the superintendent said. Instead, they have loved seeing the kids talk and laugh with each other.
Bang-Knusden said following the latest science the Department of Health and Gov. Jay Inslee encourage reopening. Plus, Bang-Knudsen is concerned about grades dropping and some seniors not being able to graduate on time. He’s also concerned about the social and emotional health of all students.
“There’s a sense of urgency; the time is now,” he said.
Getting kids involved in athletics and activities is important. He said it’s been proved time and time again that students have better social and emotional health and get better grades in season, and they’re less likely to be involved in drugs and alcohol.
From an equity standpoint, he said kids most in need are underserved with online learning.
“We need to educate all our kids,” he said, adding 280 had failing grades in 2019, with 574 this year. In a recent survey, more than 90 percent of parents said they wanted in-person learning to return.
Bang-Knudsen said many teachers and staff are worried about returning. That’s why he and many other school leaders statewide are asking that school staff be allowed to move up in the process of getting COVID vaccinations. But if that does not happen, teachers under age 50 are not scheduled to get the shots until April. So all staff would not be vaccinated until the end of the school year.
To try to alleviate some of their concerns, Bang-Knudsen said some staff has been working with about 80 special education students in-person since September. Up to 25 high school students have been coming in on Fridays to get special in-person help. And different sports teams have been practicing off and on.
Bang-Knudsen said even though COVID numbers are higher, science has proved “schools are not super spreaders. What has changed is our understanding of the science.” Students rarely spread the coronavirus to teachers.
The DOH “did not arbitrarily move the goal post. There are more examples of schools opening. There’s more data,” Bang-Knudsen said.
The school district also is better prepared than it was earlier this year, with 34 substitute teachers instead of just eight, for example.
From a COVID standpoint, the district is prepared for contact tracing and rapid testing. Cleaning protocols also are in place, with training videos for teachers. Even though surface transmission is very rare, classes will be cleaned thoroughly in-between morning and afternoon sessions.
The superintendent said it is true students will have less face time with teachers with the hybrid system, but it will be better quality instruction.
“It’s so hard to tell (online) if they’re having a bad time or need help,” he said. “It may be fewer minutes per day, but they get immediate feedback.”
A few parents spoke during public comments, before the board’s discussion. Most were against reopening.
Rob Killian said COVID numbers are too high right now to return. “In-person is dangerous not only to them but to the wider community,” he said. He said parents have spent the past year trying to stabilize their families in an isolation bubble. “It would burst our bubble with the risk of transmission if they return,” he said, adding there’s no viable reason to rush this with the vaccine more readily available in just a few months.
David Sodt said Bainbridge Island may have had low numbers of COVID cases, but many staff live off the island, and there will be increased risk coming together inside a building. He also objected to face time with teachers being cut in half.
Keri Schmit said she has been a teacher for 25 years and her daughter would love to have a normal senior year, but she’s terrified of returning to school. She said Bang-Knudsen talks about social-emotional health of students, but the school board needs to think of “everyone’s social and emotional health and not return” kids to school.
Josh Mann said his two boys are doing well with remote learning, and he doesn’t like that they will have less access to teachers. He’s also not trusting of students following protocols on schools buses, meaning he and his wife will have to take time out of their work days to transport the kids. Finally, he thinks staff needs to be vaccinated before returning. “We’ve been quarantining for nine months,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to expose ourselves to others who are taking this less seriously.”