Distance learning better, large group says

Not everyone on Bainbridge Island approves of students going back to school.

About 1,200 people said as much in a letter to the school district, 238 people belong to a Facebook group that is opposed, and a dozen people spoke at a recent school board meeting.

The main concern is reopening when teacher vaccinations are so close. But they are also concerned about not being listened to, communication, high COVID-19 numbers, new variants spreading and tech issues like not serving those staying at home well enough or connecting them with those in class with a program like Zoom.

Sam George is part of the online Facebook group called “Parents for Responsible School Options.”

He said they are upset that they and their students had to pick back in November if they wanted online or in-person learning. They weren’t allowed to change, and a lot has changed since then.

He also said students staying at home are being forgotten about now. He wonders why a camera couldn’t be set up in school so the teacher could also work with those at home at the same time.

They also think it’s wrong that teachers are being made to teach in-person, even if they don’t want to. “There’s enough polarization in the country,” George said, adding he wonders what the liability for the district would be.

He said opponents are wrong to think they want to close schools. But they do want online options so students and teachers can stay home until everyone is vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the Facebook group sent a 23-question letter to the district, and there has been no response. That could lead to challenges for school board positions, and a potential change in leadership.

“Everything’s on the table,” George said. “There are a lot of very upset people. If they keep ignoring us there are a lot of highly motivated people with resources to see this through.”

George said the district didn’t need to open just because of Gov. Jay Inslee’s ask or new state guidelines. “But it’s like they made up their minds, and it’s full steam ahead,” George said.

School board meeting

Meanwhile, ninth-grader Evelyn Cantwell spoke to the school board last week. She remains an at-home learner because teachers have not been vaccinated and COVID numbers are still high. She said she misses her friends and teachers but that pales in comparison to losing one of them forever. She challenged the school board to “do what is hard and maybe unpopular because it’s right.”

Lack of communication is Shannon Dowling’s main concern. “The island is divided on this matter,” she said, adding the community feels disregarded by the district, and the board needs to bridge that gap. Dowling said the more data and other information is shared the more “my opinion changes as I learn.”

Heidi Watson said she doesn’t think mental health is improved at all with in-person learning because of the anxiety over if someone gets the coronavirus. She also said with no recess and little interaction with friends there are “none of the fun parts of school.” She said students actually have about half the time with teachers as they did online. “I don’t see how it’s any better,” she said.

Christian Ford said BISD is missing the boat by not combining in-person and remote learners live on Zoom. Frank Renna agreed. He said even if a teacher had to be quarantined he or she still could teach that way. Melinda Barnes supported both of them by saying the district needs to have a more creative approach in reframing in-person and distance learning. “These kids are so scared and overwhelmed.”

Lisa Mandelkorn said the district is misleading people saying a large majority want to return to school. She did her own survey and said it’s closer to 50-50. Mandelkorn said the district is not listening to teachers or the 1,200 people who signed a petition against returning. She said there needs to be individual choice to have a fair and equitable education. “This is a terrible pandemic not to be played with.”

Regina Bellody said she supports the district’s efforts to deal with students in crisis. But she said hospitalizations are up, and students are worried about spreading COVID so it’s “too soon.”

Chris Kelly said online works great for students stressed out about getting teachers and friends sick. But he wonders how the mental health of kids will be monitored if someone does get sick.

Tara Grumm said she joined a Facebook group of parents who are concerned about lack of information. She said it’s a rapidly changing environment. Now we’re supposed to double up masks or get an N-95. What about long-term symptoms and asymptomatic spreading COVID?

George asked the board to have the courage to change course as data changes. He wants everyone vaccinated before returning. He is concerned about the variants, new information about cloth masks and limited research about school’s reopening.

Sal DeRosalia didn’t pick a side. But he did say the district’s communication lacked transparency. He said a “staggering amount of information” is accepted as factual when we don’t know where it’s coming from.

Cynthia Bellas pushed for rapid testing. She thinks everyone should be tested every three days. Children can transmit COVID even if they don’t have symptoms, and the variants are even more contagious. She said she’s all for reopening schools if this is done, and it’s inexpensive. “It’s a cutting edge solution.”

1,200 signatures

Meanwhile, Julie Farley, Tanya Powers and Lisa Mandelkorn led the way in gathering 1,200 signatures for a letter sent to the district opposing reopening.

“Concerned teachers, scared moms, children of longtime teachers scared about their parents’ health and desperate community members are all asking for a chance to be heard by our school district,” the letter states.

They say the controversy over starting school has divided the community. They ask that the district listen to the community, continue what is working and look to help those in need. “We need to keep our teachers, students and community safe,” they say.

The letter itself says in part:

“Dear Dr. Bang-Knudsen and School Board Members,

We, the members of the Bainbridge Island Community, hold you accountable for the failure to create safe learning conditions within our schools. We expect you to create an environment that does the following:

• Provides a safe environment for our teachers and allows them the time to be vaccinated

• Provides in-person learning for struggling students

• Provides continued instruction for those who need to stay home

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. The district has created two systems that have divided our community and pitted us against each other. Our children need you to lead by example. Ignoring the issues and not listening to the concerns of your community, especially your teachers, teaches students the wrong lessons, lacks compassion and empathy, and most importantly endangers our physical and mental well-being.

We look forward to working with you in an honest and open way, that is not influenced by financial or political gain, in order to continue to safely educate our children.”

More than 40 people attached comments to the letter.

Questions for district

Finally, here are the questions, in part, that the Facebook group to the district:

1. How will the high school make up for the loss of direct instruction (600 minutes/week at BHS and 800 minutes/week at Woodward)? What is to be gained from the school day if learning time has decreased?

2. How will you share information about COVID-19 outbreaks? Will it be handled similar to lice outbreaks in the past?

3. What is the plan to contain an outbreak? Will you create a dashboard similar to the one created by Mercer Island? Was there a case at Woodward?

4. How are you addressing mental health issues in the classroom? Will teachers be given additional training to deal with the anxiety of the return to school? Will there be counselors to assist teachers in crisis management? Where is the data concerning the current mental health status of our students? How will the mental health of students be considered following the return to in-person learning?

5. Have teachers been asked if they would like to have training in livestreaming their classes?

6. Why is our district unable to use the streaming approach to classes like other districts throughout the country?

7. How will instruction be made up if a student needs to quarantine due to symptoms, exposure or a family member who tested positive? Will teachers have time to assist these students with questions concerning work as to not put them at a disadvantage?

8. Have teachers been given the opportunity to remain at home if they are not comfortable with the return to school? Are teachers able to maintain their benefits if they need to stay at home?

9. May we have the names of the cleaning products used on the desks?

10. How will you ensure safety protocols are being followed? Will there be some sort of discipline for non-compliance? For instance, how will you ensure kids are masked in the hallways?

11. How will you handle families who will not quarantine after a trip out of state or the country?

12. How many will be sick before we pivot back to remote learning?

13. Will you consider an official partnership with the community?

14. How many students are in hybrid, Mosaic and online?

15. How many students dropped out of BISD?

16. How many teachers would like to remain online?

17. How many families would like to remain remote?

18. How many families would like to return to school?

19. Are there other programs other than Edgenuity that are more in line with BISD’s academic rigor?

20. Will new information be considered moving forward? BISD’s basis for return to in person learning has not been supported by current information. Will the CDC’s newest recommendation be heeded?

21. What is BISD’s Infection Threshold Number until action is taken? What is that specific action that will be taken if that number is reached?

22. Will BISD change its return to school timeline in response to the state’s change in teacher vaccinations?

23. Can BISD do a written travel agreement like is done at Odyssey?

BHS band student Madison Grandt holds up her instruments while learning from home. Courtesy photo