The Bainbridge Island School District intends to bring back students full-time for in-person learning next fall, barring any unforeseen setbacks or rises in COVID-19 cases.
“We’re really excited for that,” Superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen said at last week’s school board meeting. “There’s a lot of planning that we need to do to put this in place.”
The announcement came after Gov. Jay Inslee’s newest guidelines where social distancing requirements for students would be decreased from 6 feet to 3 feet, effective immediately. However, the district will not be implementing that change until next fall.
“It’s three feet between students in a classroom so we can scoot the desks closer together, which is great news,” Bang-Knudsen said. “We can eventually get 28-30 kids in a classroom again, which is great for the older kids.”
Although the new guidelines seem simple, there are some exceptions. Still needing to be 6 feet apart are students eating lunch or in common areas, as well as for students in music and PE classes. Additionally, teachers will need to stay 6 feet apart from students and staff. Six-feet of distancing would still be required in middle and high school settings if the community is experiencing a high COVID transmission rate (more than 100 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.)
“There’s a bunch of nuances,” Bang-Knudsen said. “Our lunchrooms aren’t big enough to have six feet so we’re going to need to do more lunchtimes or create different spaces.”
Mitigation strategies will continue for next school year, including mask-wearing, daily attestation practices, increased ventilation, cleaning, and hand hygiene.
The superintendent addressed why the district is holding off until fall to bring students back full-time, instead of starting now. Cleaning hurdles are the biggest obstacle. According to Bang-Knudsen’s presentation to the board, other reasons for holding off include:
- Student schedule disruption: Would require re-working master schedules for grades 7-12 (which means changing classes mid-semester)
- Transportation: Would require hiring and training additional bus drivers (takes eight weeks to complete process) Would need at least six additional drivers. Would require re-routing the transportation schedule (which can take weeks)
- Food Service: Would need to reduce the capacity of lunchrooms/eating areas to remain socially distant. Pre-pandemic lunch schedules would need to be revised.
“We just think that would be far too disruptive for our students,” Bang-Knudsen said. “We don’t have enough bus drivers right now to run all of our full-time schedules for all of our students. With the planning that we can have for the next few months, we can make a really positive welcome back experience for kids and for our staff. We will be ready to go.”
Bang-Knudsen listed some next steps the district needs to address, such as asking those in 100 percent online learning to see if they wish to continue that next fall.
“We’re going to have to make some modifications, depending on the number of students who sign up,” he said.
After the students’ spring break April 5-9, families will select a learning model for next year (in-person or online), while staff will begin planning for the return of full-time in-person learning. The superintendent also made the point about the community doing collectively what they can to fight COVID so numbers don’t spike and variants aren’t introduced.
“I think we’re really seeing an enthusiasm about families who want to come back in our public schools,” Bang-Knudsen said.
The superintendent mentioned that COVID rates on Bainbridge are still considered “low-risk” at 16 cases per 100,000 residents over the previous two weeks. Last week, staff conducted audits of the classrooms to make sure all public protocols are being followed.
“We really think that having strict adherence to those protocols is one of the things that’s helping us keep everyone safe,” Bang-Knudsen said. “For hybrid in-person learning, we’ve got on average about 416 staff members who are coming in and about 2,700 students who are coming in on a daily basis.”
Currently, BISD doesn’t have any current COVID cases or close contacts among students and staff. One reason could be that more staff members are getting vaccinated. As of March 24, 58 percent of staff reported receiving their first dose, while 50 percent have scheduled an appointment for their second dose.
Additionally, 22 percent of staff reported that they are fully vaccinated, and numbers are expected to keep increasing each week at the Commodore clinic.
“Those numbers are just going to keep going up,” Bang-Knudsen said. “It’s a very busy place (Commodore clinic), but I really think this is a great community effort to get our community members vaccinated as quickly as possible, so something that we should be proud about with that great effort.”
Other district news
At the start of the meeting, Bang-Knudsen and the board participated in a moment of silence to honor the three Bainbridge High School students who tragically died in a single-vehicle rollover in March.
“I know there’s been a lot of community grief and processing of the tragic deaths of three Bainbridge High School students – Marina, Hazel and Hannah,” he said. “They were vibrant young women who were loved and respected as teammates and students and friends. We’re going to miss them.”
Public commenter Thomas Greene also offered his condolences. “We’re still in shock about the three girls at the high school,” he said. “Wish there was a way to get over it but we can’t, and even if we didn’t know them personally, we will never forget them.”
Also, the meeting was the last for board member Mike Spence and facilities director Tamela Van Winkle. Spence has served on the board since 2009 and is resigning before the end of his term in November due to work commitments. The district is in the process of appointing someone to serve out the term.
“This has been the most fulfilling twelve years of my life, I mean it,” Spence said. “It wasn’t that hard, because you guys are so incredible. It’s really a pretty easy job when you hire the right people, and you trust them, and you know they care about the district and the kids in the community in it.”
Van Winkle has been with the district for 18 years and was instrumental in projects such as the BHS 100 and 200 buildings, along with improvements to Wilkes and Blakely elementaries.
“It’s been eighteen years,” Van Winkle said. “I get a lot of recognition because of the work but I’m just kind of the face or the spokesperson for an amazing group of people. I really love so many people in the district because they work so hard, and they love our kids.”