BISD Superintendent reflects on challenges of pandemic, looks forward to return to normalcy

As the Bainbridge Island School District nears the end of an unparalleled school year filled with uncertainty and angst, along with requiring immense flexibility and adaptability, many challenges were met and overcome along the way.

Everything from mitigation strategies, technology adaptation and implementation, figuring out school schedules, and managing the social/emotional well-being of students was a daunting task for BISD, like many school districts throughout the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen talked with the Review to reflect on the past year or so about how the district faced these challenges, made tough decisions, and what the future looks like as we move into the tail end of the pandemic.

BIR: What have been some of the greatest challenges of holding school during a pandemic?

PBK: When we first shut down, we were thinking this is going to be a couple weeks or maybe a month. There was a lot of optimism that this was going to be a short-term thing, like maybe a bad flu season or something. Just the evolution of awareness; this is going to be a long-term pandemic. This is going to have long-term effects. Just how many times we had to modify and adapt and change the way we were thinking based on updated science, based on changes in regulations, based on our capacity.

There was huge health concerns, of course, related to COVID but underlying from all that were really big concerns and challenges about the well-being of kids. I think especially as it dragged on and the longer that most kids were out of school, we were really starting to see that impact. We were starting to see kids’ loneliness, kids’ isolation and kids’ social/emotional health being impacted. That was certainly layered and weighed heavy on us as far as our thinking and decision-making.

BIR: Was it even possible to prepare for a situation like this?

PBK: Part of our emergency preparedness, we have a pandemic response approach but when you go back and look at that it was really intended for a really bad flu season. In a previous district, we had the bird flu and some other things. It was more like how do you shut down a school for maybe a few days and clean it up, that kind of thing. Our preparation, and certainly our nation’s preparation, wasn’t thinking at this scale. From the technology readiness to how long it was going to last, how we were going to coordinate all those things. Our local readiness was probably the same as every other school district, which was based on some state guidance but it was really framed around a much smaller incident.

BIR: What have you learned throughout this unique time in regard to the school district?

PBK: I’m so proud of our community, and I’m going to start with our kids and our staff. I’ve sat on Zoom meetings with kids, I’m seeing the kids in person and they have been so resilient. I’m so proud of what they’ve done. They’ve done their very best, they’ve been responsive, they were engaging to the best of their abilities when it was on Zoom. They are so excited to be back in person, and they have just truly been an inspiration.

From the very beginning, we had staff who were working so hard. My food service people were working from the very early days when we were still very scared about what this was going to do. They were working in relatively close quarters preparing meals for kids because they didn’t want our kids to be hungry. They wanted our families to be served. They were coming to work every day when almost the entire community was locked in their homes. I thought that was incredibly inspiring. I have custodians, bus drivers, and other people who really were working far earlier than we opened up schools.

When we opened up schools, just so proud of the teachers and staff who just welcomed kids and were able to find fun ways to engage with the kids even with masks. That’s the thing I think I was surprised by was even with masks and social distancing, when you go into the schools it felt like school. There was laughter, there were little jokes between the teachers and the kids. There’s just this joyfulness that’s in the classrooms, and it just reminded me that still is there. I give our teachers a ton of credit for finding ways to make it engaging and fun for our kids as they return back in a not-so-normal year.

BIR: Personally and professionally, was this the most difficult year you’ve experienced?

PBK: I’ve been in education for 28 years at kind of all levels. I was a teacher and a principal and now a superintendent. I’ve had my share of crises which typically is an incident maybe at a school; maybe you have to have a lockdown or maybe there’s a tragedy with a student who dies, those kinds of things. You’re dealing with the grief, you’re dealing with the aftermath and working through it but typically in a matter of days or weeks, there’s a return to normalcy.

As the realization came in, this was more like a war effort. I was reading this book about Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain and just kind of about that mindset. That’s what I was kind of going to, we have to have a long-term almost war mindset that we’re fighting this battle with COVID and we need to rally the community resources, we’ve got to overcome fear, we’ve got to pull together. I’ve never had to face anything like this and just the endurance that it took from a leadership perspective certainly was challenging. There were some long and dark days there for sure.

BIR: Anything you want to incorporate moving forward that you did during the pandemic?

PBK: We have a much more fluid and interactive use of technology. We did one-to-one devices all the way down to our kindergarteners. Their ability to utilize that, whether in-person or at home, I really see is going to continue to some degree. I also think that even though people are really tired of Zoom conferences, I see there’s some potential for us to make more access for parent meetings or those types of things when it’s difficult for a parent to get away from work and make it to a school conference.

In-person learning is still a superior type of learning for most kids than remote or distance learning. The proof is in the pudding; when we opened up our schools 95 percent of the kids came back. That was before vaccines. The vast, vast majority are wanting in-person learning. Learning is a social concept…the best types of learning are interactive and interacting with peers. Those are the kinds of things you get in a classroom environment.

BIR: How difficult was it for the last few graduating classes to have a typical senior year taken away from them?

PBK: We felt super sad for those graduates. I was super proud of how we modified some of those traditions and they actually turned out to be pretty special in their own way. The parents kind of came up with a car parade that was a huge hit. Then we did this drive-through graduation and it was actually really special. It was very personal, parents were just 10 feet away in their cars so they could see the graduate’s face, they could see the handing over of the diploma and there was just this personal connectivity piece to it that felt really special. Our current graduating class, they’re not going to have a prom. There were too many COVID restrictions. We are going to do a graduation ceremony in the (BHS) stadium. They certainly aren’t having a normal graduation season either.

BIR: How much time and preparation were put in by staff last summer to prepare for an uncharted school year?

PBK: We essentially had three planning teams. One team was just about the COVID protocols and we were using the state Department of Health guidelines. This team really developed the attestation stations, 6 feet social distancing. There’s this written guidance but then you actually have to apply it in this school setting. There’s always a little bit of a ‘how do you do that in practice?’ This team was a group that had parents, teachers and district staff. They worked basically the month of July to put all these things in place.

We also had a concurrent team that was taking a look at the schedules of what we called the hybrid model, it took us until January to start that up. They studied the different schedules, how you could do it. They came up with something that at the time was a little unusual which was to do an a.m./p.m. session and not to do lunch. What happened was a lot of other districts chose to go that route too, and I was proud that they had done some really good thinking around that and how to make that work for families. One of the key points of that was they got four days of contact, whereas some districts went alternating days where kids would only get two days of contact with teachers.

The third team was really around the technology. How do we systematize and maximize the technology that we have? Basically streamlining what are the core technologies that we need to use and how do we effectively use them? What we heard was the difference (between) the spring when we hadn’t done the training and the fall when we had done the training was night and day. Our teachers just did an incredible job of becoming real experts in terms of doing distance learning. That was in large part due to the hard work that happened in July when it’s usually crickets around the school district.

The part that was challenging was most of the summer we were planning on starting Sept. 1 with in-person/hybrid learning but then it was late July and early August when the numbers were really spiking and we made the decision, along with a lot of other schools across the state, of starting remote because of the health data. I felt like we had a successful launch.

BIR: How difficult was it to balance the wants and needs of the community, who had different viewpoints on how school should be conducted during the pandemic?

PBK: We’ve got a great community and we heard from a large percentage of them. There were some discrepant viewpoints and some passionate viewpoints out there. From one end of the range were people who wanted us to come back in person Sept. 1 full-time, you had people who wanted us to come back when it was safe. I certainly heard and listened to a lot of the community members. What was driving me really came down to two things: The first big thing was the science. I was really intent that we were going to follow science and the recommendations of the health department. The second thing was our district readiness. That’s kind of a broad category but it included things like did we have enough bus drivers to transport our kids, had we sufficiently trained our teachers, did we have enough COVID monitors in place at the doors of our schools, did we have all those things in place?

There was one point when the COVID rates were looking pretty good but we didn’t have enough bus drivers. It was a little bit of a toggle or a balancing act. In late November/early December, the Department of Health came out with a pilot grant for school districts that were interested to do COVID testing of staff and students, and we were one of 10 districts that signed up for that pilot and we were accepted into that. To me, that was that extra layer of mitigation that helped reassure our staff, students and families. When we did open up, there was a very small handful of positive cases but what it demonstrated was that we had no community spread. Even if there was a case you could come in and get tested. From my perspective, that was one of the key factors that helped us open up. At least across K-12, we were the first district in Kitsap County to be open this year, and we’re really proud of that.

BIR: How comfortable were the teachers with the settings they were given?

PBK: There were absolutely legitimate staff concerns about some of the return to in-person learning, especially before vaccines were available. There was anxiousness. Those committees that I talked about, there were teachers and staff who were involved. We invited them to listen in on presentations from DOH and experts from the Gates Foundation to kind of share the science and inform them that when we use these mitigation strategies that the schools can be a very safe place to be. I think that helped teachers be so much more comfortable.

When we got back in person, they were just thrilled to be with their kids again. Then within a few weeks, the news about teachers getting vaccinated came out. That was just massive positive news that I think lifted spirits. We’ve got a really high rate of our staff who’ve voluntarily reported that they are vaccinated. To me, that was kind of like the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle. That really just paved the path for total confidence in coming back.

BIR: What impact has the pandemic caused the district in regard to budget cuts, reduced enrollment, and staff reduction?

PBK: There were clearly some COVID impacts that happened. We did lose about 200 students from what we had anticipated we were going to have for this year. Most of those students who were enrolled left as they were essentially disappointed that we weren’t doing in-person learning. We’re working really hard to bring those students and families back. We are so excited that we’re going to be full-time and it’s going to be a really normal-looking school year. Anyone who’s left us we want to welcome them back and let them know that it’s going to be a great year next year.

We survived this year and we’re surviving next year pretty well. We had some additional state money come in that’s one-time-only money to help offset some of the costs of COVID. We had a little bit of federal dollars come in and help cover the costs of like PPE and self-screening devices. That wasn’t a lot of money but it helped a little bit.

We did make some reductions but it’s mostly what I call staffing to enrollment. If you had 75 fourth-graders that would be like three classes of 25 kids so you’d have three teachers. Next year if you only have 50 fourth-graders you would only need two teachers with two classes at 25. Those are the kinds of reductions that we did. We were fortunate that we had a combination of retirements and resignations that we didn’t have to do a reduction in force or layoffs.

This isn’t really COVID-related but I am concerned about the overall demographic trends on Bainbridge Island. I’m seeing that we’re having a bit of a demographic cliff in terms of the aging of the population. The average age is over 50 now, that’s quite a bit higher than the rest of Kitsap County. The last 16 years from our peak in 2005 where we had 4,223 kids, we’re now down to 3,560. That’s over 600 students that we’ve lost. That’s about the size of Woodward Middle School or maybe about the size of two of our elementary schools.

This is a long-term trend that I see is really related to the housing crunch on Bainbridge Island. If you look at the cost of housing and the number of units that are available, it’s a basic supply and demand issue. I hear all the time, ‘people want to move to Bainbridge for the schools, we’d love to get our kids in your schools, but we can’t find a house.’ I think this is something that we’re really going to need to dig into as a community and reflect upon. Are there certain things that we’re doing that are making it so cost-prohibitive to build houses that it’s having long-term effects on our population trends and on our schools?

BIR: What things are you excited about for the next school year?

PBK: I’m excited we’re going to be able to do things like recess and lunch again. Those informal, social, and joyful times for a lot of our kids. The difference between 6-feet social distancing and 3-feet social distancing from a classroom environment really allows us to do more face-to-face, grouping of kids, interaction, peer to peer conversation. I’m excited to have more sports and club opportunities for our kids, those extracurricular activities, many of which were postponed this year or done remotely. We’re really talking about bringing the joy back to our schools. I’m looking forward to that.