Last week, as Washington state officials considered drastic interventions to stem the proliferation of cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, Vashon Island School District superintendent Slade McSheehy announced the closure of the elementary, middle and high schools effective Thursday.
The decision was made after an earlier video conference with administrators from King County and Pierce County, Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal and Gov. Jay Inslee, who soon mandated the closures of all public and private K through 12 schools in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties. By the next day, Inslee had ordered all K through 12 schools in the state closed until late April.
“It is unfortunate but it is true that this virus is going to spread to other counties and it is spreading very rapidly. We have concluded that a county-by-county approach to this epidemic is not sufficient; we need to get ahead of this wave and we need to do it today,” he said at a press conference Friday.
Island school board members, meeting as planned on Thursday evening with a revised agenda devoted entirely to discussing coronavirus impacts and planning, heard from several administrators at the district about the efforts underway to provide for and support students during an unprecedented shutdown caused by a virus that has rapidly changed most facets of public life worldwide. But there was consensus that launching entirely new programs and supplementary curriculums to account for lost instruction time and the disruption of vital services requires patience and troubleshooting, even with a wellspring of support from faculty members and the community alike.
Opening the meeting — streamed live on Youtube in order to promote social distancing measures as recommended by Public Health – King County & Seattle — Chair Rheagan Sparks spoke on behalf of all of the board to express appreciation for faculty and island families who have banded together to create some semblance of a plan going forward despite having limited information that is subject to change quickly.
“I think when we come out of the other side of this thing, we’ll all feel very blessed to have such a good school family to work with,” she said.
Just two weeks ago, public health steadfastly recommended against closing schools due to considerations around timing, equability, disruptions to learning, and burdening families. But as McSheehy noted, officials have since debated how best to respond to the escalating threat posed by COVID-19, wary of acting prematurely or waiting too long before the virus spread further. Prompting Gov. Inslee’s order to close schools was the sheer number of confirmed cases within the Puget Sound area — expected to double every five to seven days — leading to his belief that a long-term school closure was within the public’s best interest. Meanwhile, the door is open to extended closures of schools and businesses statewide unless the virus can be contained. Officials have reiterated at multiple points that the only way to contain it is to practice social distancing, among other hygiene habits such as frequent hand washing.
At the board meeting, McSheehy cited a presentation shown earlier to students explaining why the decision to close schools was clear: To reduce transmission of the virus to others and ultimately pose lesser demands on the overtaxed healthcare system, namely hospitals, which could see influxes of patients as the crisis worsens and beds, ventilators and other medical equipment are increasingly in short supply.
Many health officials and legislators feel pressed to get ahead of a shortage before there is one. On Monday morning, Gov. Inslee thanked President Donald Trump during a press conference for granting his request to ease access to the federal stockpile of personal protective equipment for medical workers. His positive remarks came after a conference call with the president who told governors on the line that they had federal support in dealing with the growing number of cases in their respective states, though Trump seemed to suggest that little help would be offered unless necessary.
“Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves,” he told the governors, according to The New York Times.
Washington legislators, meanwhile, are already preparing for anything, passing a $200 million bill last week for statewide recovery and relief from the coronavirus, capping off the end of the latest legislative session. Much of the funding is designated for local and state health departments as well as federally recognized tribes; the bill also provides for those who become unemployed as the pandemic worsens, and includes some guidance for students whose postgraduate plans become disrupted by regional COVID-19 response. At press time, it was awaiting Gov. Inslee’s signature.
Questions for many school districts remain over how to best accommodate their classes throughout the uncertainty. Many upperclassmen were blindsided by rescheduled or canceled SAT or AP course exams (The College Board says it will provide future additional SAT testing opportunities for students as soon as possible in place of canceled administrations); the statewide closure of schools threatens to upend end of the year celebrations, though Vashon High School’s graduation date has not changed. Reykdal said in a recent bulletin that while districts should make every effort to make up missed time, OSPI can file an emergency rule for the 2019 to 2020 school year to allow the agency to waive the days and instructional hours that districts won’t be able to make up, leaving it up to districts how to optimize the time outside of the classroom.
In the early, crucial days ahead, Vashon school staff and officials want to make sure that island students are having their basic needs met, beginning with meals. McSheehy said that on their last day in school, students were given an overview of what will be available to all of them each day throughout the closure of the school district: Free “Grab ‘n’ Go” bags that include breakfast and lunch, which students can pick up between 8 and 11 a.m. daily at Vashon High School. Bus drivers will also deliver the bags along three designated routes at locations throughout the island. More information about scheduling and meal delivery locations is available online.
In an interview with The Beachcomber, Lisa Cyra, food service director, said that the menu for each day will be different, from bagels and cream cheese to homemade banana bread or blueberry muffins served with fresh fruit, yogurt, milk and juice. The lunch items will loosely consist of a sandwich — students will be able to choose between two to three options — veggies, fruit, chips and milk.
Families are asked to complete an online survey in order to gauge the need for meals in the community, though they may opt into or out of the program at their choosing.
“There’s going to be blips along the way, but I think over time, we’re going to get better at it and try and reach out to more and more families, which will be super important,” said Cyra.
Stephanie Spencer, Director of Teaching and Learning, echoed Cyra as she walked the board through an overview of the supplemental learning activities now being prepared for students to complete during the closure. Relevant to the present curriculum students have been learning, many of the online resources being shared with families have been cultivated for the last several years, she said, making the task of rolling them out in this format somewhat easier than working from scratch.
Students in grades 3 through 12 should not find the transition to online learning opportunities difficult, as they are adept at using services such as Google Classroom with their teachers, Spencer said, or the Clever portal that students and teachers use together to access educational applications.
“It’s really about trying to build a simple place for families, for parents to go, and to know how to prompt their students or to get extra activities if they want to,” said Spencer. She added that teachers will likely be trying to maintain contact with students on a weekly basis to provide so-called invitational learning opportunities on various topics. “Right now it’s really just making sure that students have resources who want to access them and encouraging them to participate in some of these activities so that they have some continuity in their learning.”
The online coursework for Vashon Island School District families and students at all grade levels are available online.
In an interview with The Beachcomber, McMurray Middle School Teacher Stephanie Detwiler said that staff is working hard to put materials together for students.
“It all turns out to be a lot more logistically complicated than it seems and that is made even more difficult by the fact that we can’t meet in person,” she said, praising district leaders and the principals of each of the schools for the level of communication they are maintaining with staff during the closure.
Importantly, Detwiler said teachers have been deliberate in communicating to students that they won’t be held accountable for completing supplementary lessons. Among other reasons, it’s because island students might be caring for other children during the closure in the event a parent or guardian has to work, or even caring for someone who is ill.
Detwiler spent Monday working all day from home, pulling together resources of her own for students, sending emails to those in each of her classes and responding to more emails she received over the weekend ahead of the first virtual get-together she and other educators at the district will hold as a team. Outside of the district, other island educators are also trying to innovate. At The Harbor School, administrator Mark McGough said faculty there are putting a remote learning program together while students are out of the classroom.
“We will be doing all we can to offer students and teachers a rich learning experience that includes both independent learning as well as ‘live’ online classes,” he wrote in an email.
Joleen McCauley Moore, a teacher at The Harbor School, said staff has looked at everything they typically do on a regular day and tried to figure out a way to migrate it online. She said every teacher has moved their curriculum to the Zoom video conferencing platform, where teachers and students will convene several times a week, keeping a similar schedule and the structure of the classroom (it’s flexible enough for families to use it however they can during the closure.)
If they aren’t teaching live, McCauley Moore said faculty will videotape themselves giving lessons ahead of time — say a step by step walk-through for a confusing problem with decimals — and share it on Zoom. It’s entirely unlike anything attempted at The Harbor School before, she said, noting the challenge of equity in other public school districts.
“I feel lucky that I have the resources to keep a halfway normal day,” she said, adding that she felt exhausted. “Learning happens in the classroom, and working and going online is not the same as the community you build in the classroom. That part is weird. But it also re-energizes in me that teachers make the difference in [taking] a worksheet and bringing it to life.”
Back at the island school district, the staff at Chautauqua have prepared a system for families who prefer learning with print packets, and those will be disseminated along with food delivery. Other instructional activities will be available in Spanish as well as English. Chromebooks have been mobilized for those who asked for them and loaned out while others were being sourced to provide for families who requested them. Spencer said that staff also know certain students need further outreach and they are discussing how to make sure there are supports in place for them during this time.
“It’s all new. We have way more questions than answers right now. And we’re just rolling with it and we’ll see when we make adjustments going on as we can,” she said.
The district is receiving updated guidance on providing childcare services with priority given to essential personnel such as those who work in healthcare and emergency services, as well as families who are vulnerable during the closure. More information about childcare services will be available this week, after press time, but the district said it will be implemented by Monday, March 23. Vashon Youth and Family Services will also begin providing childcare in accordance with public health guidelines at Vashon Kids for children age five to 12 at that time according to Community Engagement Manager David Carleton.
For his part, in a follow-up interview, McSheehy said that weeks ago COVID-19 loomed, but no one could have imagined how quickly it developed. School closures statewide felt imminent last week, he said, based on the conversations he was having with other administrators and officials. Making the announcement a day early meant that there would be more time to begin planning, and while the wondering and uncertainty never stops, McSheehy said, he has faith in the direction they are headed as a district.
“I walked through the door today thinking the reason why we’re at the spot is that I have a great leadership team. I have a very supportive board. I have a staff that just wants to step up and contribute,” he said. “When you have the relationships in place to make all of that happen, that’s like all of the perfect ingredients to handle a crisis.”