Even though Bainbridge Island schools opened this week for in-person learning, some folks were still upset about it Thursday night.
During the public comment period at the school board meeting, 16 people spoke, with a dozen against reopening.
Many said they wanted teachers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before reopening. Others said parents and students weren’t given enough options to returning to school. And still others said the district didn’t communicate well enough with the community during the process to get their input.
But during the superintendent’s report, Peter Bang-Knudsen said the first week went really well, with more than 1,300 students returning in grades kindergarten through six. There was 94% attendance.
“That shows the enthusiasm for coming back,” he said, adding he heard laughing and people “having a great time together.”
Bang-Knudsen said the district has been planning to reopen for months and that everyone was following COVID safety rules and expectations. He said the district will be constantly reviewing its readiness and adjusting to Department of Health guidelines. He noted the Kitsap Public Health District is reporting a downward trend in positive coronavirus cases. He also noted a Center for Disease Control report that says as long as safety protocols are in place there has been little evidence that reopening schools leads to spreading the coronavirus.
He added schools statewide are still pushing for vaccines for staff, and they are closely watching COVID variants to see how to respond to them.
Four people spoke in favor of in-person learning during public comments.
John Hamilton said he was glad the district “followed the science.” He said at-home learning led to mental health and risk of isolation issues for kids. He applauded the district moving forward with compassion allowing those who want to stay home to do that and those who want to go in-person to do that.
Nate Watson thanked the district for having the courage to do the right thing. He said the district’s procedures are allowing it to be done safetly. He said every kid is glad to be back in class, and he hopes high schoolers can return soon during this “crucial time of life.”
Thomas Greene said the district took a leap of faith. He said everybody knows the risks, but he hopes no one is doing something they feel uncomfortable with.
Casey Schmidt said BISD did the right thing as other schools have been open for some time with few outbreaks. He said people are social animals, and kids have been struggling, but as soon as school reopened it was like flipping a switch and his daughters were transformed.
Evelyn Cantwell, a ninth-grader, was against reopening. 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 opinon 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 could teach that way. He said remote learning reduces risk but Zoom could be integrated to have both at home and in person together.
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 last week 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 gets sick.
Tara Grumm said she joined a Facebook group of parents who are concerned about a 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 asymptomatics spreading COVID?
Sam 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.”