BISD leader explains delay; comments call for opening

Staffing, in-person learning preparedness, and COVID rates among reasons for delay

Some public comments emphasized the need for kids to return to school, but Bainbridge Island schools Superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen stuck by his decision to delay in-person learning until January at the school board’s most-recent meeting.

“We’ve been following the data closely throughout the pandemic and would like to share our professional perspective that children and teachers can safely be in school settings provided certain risk mitigation strategies are in place,” pediatrician Hema Magge said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “Educators and child health professionals have aligned worldwide that in-person school should be the number one aim for communities’ well being.”

“We believe children, especially the youngest, should be in full-time in-person learning as soon as possible with risk reduction efforts that the school district is specifying,” Magge went on to say. “Children in schools, thus far have not been found to be the source of any major outbreaks. In conclusion, research supports that in-school education is critical to the early child development and cannot be replaced by technological screen-based options.”

The second and last public commenter, Tom Greene, echoed a similar sentiment.

“I’m still in shock after hearing the decision to keep the schools closed for another three months or so,” he said. “Worries about possible bumps in the road shouldn’t outweigh getting kindergarteners and first-graders back in the classroom. Look, the schools can’t be held responsible. If somebody gets sick, it is the teacher’s choice to teach and parents choice to send their kids to school. Everyone knows there (are) no guarantees.”

Bang-Knudsen followed up saying he has heard concerns like that, but also from those worried about opening schools. He explained why the decision was made to not bring the district’s youngest hybrid learners back for in-person learning Nov. 9 and gave an update on the district’s COVID-19 response plan.

At a previous board meeting, Kitsap County Public Health Officer Gib Morrow provided guidance pertaining to whether BISD could open for in-person learning Nov. 9. The school board approved that tentative timeframe given the COVID data was within the moderate range and the district had “sufficient readiness” to open, according to school board documents.

Since making that decision, the district received additional information from K-4 families, along with staff having examined BISD’s readiness to bring back students. Based on those factors, the district delayed reopening plans to until January.

Bang-Knudsen’s reasoning is based on a couple of factors:

  • Staffing: “Right now, we have enough substitute teachers to cover potential teacher absences if we brought back in-person learning for preschool, kindergarten and 1st grades. However, we are teetering on not having enough. We are actively recruiting substitutes. Still, the process takes time, and the number of substitute employees must substantially increase for in-person learning to be sustainable districtwide.”

In a typical year, BISD has roughly 40 substitutes but currently only has 11 , documents say.

“In previous years, (our) substitute teachers were in a population where they did have some either age- or health-related issues in terms of returning for in-person learning,” Bang-Knudsen said. “So (our) substitute pool has significantly diminished, and we’re trying to build it back up from scratch.

“We anticipate there’s going to be an increased need for substitutes in increased demand, but we have a much lower supply,” he went on to say. “We just didn’t think it would be fair to open up and then have to shut down a classroom or a school based on substitutes.”

In response to that need, the district will be holding an informational webinar Nov. 19 at 4 p.m. for interested substitute candidates.

  • In-person learning preparedness: Until now, much of BISD’s preparation has focused on the safety measures and what can’t happen in a classroom (such as no signing, no reading circles, etc.), and we need to work with our teachers to create a framework on what is possible. We also heard from many parents who wanted more specifics of what the school day will look like (both during in-person learning and the at-home learning portion of the day), and we will have a sample schedule to share with you soon.”

To combat that complication, the district will be conducting administration planning sessions; launch a crowd-sourcing platform asking staff to help identify ways BISD can best prepare for bringing back students; develop staff training; and create sample student schedules, according to documents.

“What we hadn’t had an opportunity to do was really develop strategies for how to do in-person hybrid learning,” Bang-Knudsen said. “Our big emphasis is on the staffing and the training for the professional learning so we can make sure that our teachers feel equipped and prepared with these new toolbelts and skills to do that in-person learning in this new model.”

  • COVID-19 rates: While current rates in Kitsap County remain moderate according to the state Health Department Decision Tree (indicating that we can bring students back), it is essential to note that the rates look backward …not forward on what the future brings. With COVID rates spiking across the nation and in surrounding counties …, there is reason to believe Kitsap rates may increase, too. That, coupled with the holiday season, gave us reason to pause.

In the weeks ahead, the district will continue to implement best practices through direct guidance from the Kitsap Public Health District. “There is still quite a bit of public concern and staff concern on that issue as well,” Bang-Knudsen said.

The board will provide an update on its tentative progress for returning to in-person learning at its next meeting.

Schedule example

On Monday, Sakai Intermediate School released a planned schedule for what school would look like once in-person learning starts.

Monday through Thursday Hybrid AM students would start with in-person learning from 8:05-10:50 a.m. The transition home segment would be from 10:50-11:30 a.m. Transition-lunch-and cleaning would be from 11:30 a.m.-12:10 p.m. Asynchronous learning would then be until 3:25, when students would work on assignments from class, enrichment tasks and independent work.

Hybrid PM students would start their day with asynchronous learning from 8:05-11:20 a.m.; transition-lunch-cleaning after that until noon; transition to school until 12:40; then have in-person learning until 3:25.

While in school students will have lessons in core academic classes, along with social emotional learning. Students will stay with their classmates while teachers move from room to room. Students on campus must wear masks and practice social distancing.

On Fridays all learning will be online.