As the clock ticks toward the first day of school on Vashon on Aug. 31, there are still a lot of questions about how the nitty-gritty of online education will work for Vashon public school students in the fall.
On July 22, Schools Superintendent Slade McSheehy informed islanders by email that the district will begin school in the fall with remote learning only, based on guidance by Seattle King County Public Health and Gov. Jay Inslee that it would be unsafe to open schools in high-risk counties in September for in-person learning.
A complete plan for online school, created by McSheehy in consultation with district principals, vice-principals and district office directors, will be voted on by the school board this Thursday.
At the board’s last meeting, on July 23 — one day after McSheehy’s announcement that school would go fully online — only one board member, Bob Hennessey, suggested an additional work session for the board to help craft and review the bigger plan. Other board members declined to have the work session, saying they preferred to make their analysis and discussion of the plan a part of this Thursday’s meeting.
In a phone interview on Monday, McSheehy told The Beachcomber that he had also received input for the plan from the recently re-convened Schools Reopening Team — an advisory body made up of teachers, parents, students and community members that met four times before the end of school in June. The team has now been expanded to almost 60 members, he said, and it includes school board member Zabette Macomber. The group has met once in August and will continue to give regular feedback on the plan’s implementation, he said.
McSheehy said that in creating the plan, he has incorporated further guidance provided last week by Washington Public Health that has underscored the recommendations for distance learning only in counties and communities with high case numbers of COVID-19, such as King County.
The updated recommendations say that bringing teachers and children back into classrooms would be unsafe in high-risk counties, given the rate of community spread.
The guidelines also recommend the cancellation of all after-school activities and extracurricular sports in high-risk locations. As a result, McSheehy has also announced that there will be no fall sports seasons on Vashon or any immediate gatherings for club activities, though he added that he hoped to bring back small groups for sports practice and other extracurriculars as soon as possible.
The new guidance recommends only a narrow window of limited, in-person learning in high-risk counties for “small cohorts of students with the highest needs, such as those with disabilities, students living homeless, those farthest from educational justice and younger learners.”
To that end, Vashon’s Emergency Operations Committee is currently exploring the possibility of a partnership with the district to expand classroom space to the outdoors at Chautauqua Elementary School. The goal, according to this week’s EOC Situation Report (see page 8) is to set up sturdy tents or other types of suitable shelter for safe learning outdoors, incorporating social distancing.
So how will Vashon’s schools operate this fall, with these severe limitations in place?
On Monday, during a community Zoom Q&A session, McSheehy, along with Rebecca Goertzel, principal of Chautauqua Elementary, Greg Allison, principal of McMurray Middle School, and Danny Rock, principal of Vashon High School, fielded a steady stream of questions posted in the chat section of the Zoom window.
Several of the more than 100 attendees requested for the district to provide, as soon as possible, detailed communication about students’ class schedules, online platforms, and other basic information about what will be required of students.
During the Zoom call, McSheehy broadly spoke about some of the components to be included in distance learning this fall, including both full class and small group meetings, some iteration of many elective classes including those in the arts, and core academic lessons daily. Attendance would be taken for classes, he said, and schoolwork would be required of students.
McSheehy said a resource called the Distance Learning 2.0 Guide would be sent to families by the week’s end. This would include class schedules for each of Vashon’s schools.
McSheehy was also asked to answer some big picture questions.
The first question posed at the meeting came from a community member who asked, “Can you say what concretely you will be doing to support those most at risk with the equity divide, including Latinos and low-income families?”
McSheehy replied that he was working with Comunidad Latina de Vashon, a nonprofit organization supporting and advocating for Latin families, and that he had asked his assistant to schedule phone conversations with Latino families to better understand their needs. He also said the district’s staff included a coordinator at the elementary school — where approximately 17 percent of the school’s population is Latino — to help the district understand those students’ needs.
He mentioned that food services would continue to be provided to those eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and that the school would provide Chromebooks for all students as well as WiFi hotspots for those who needed them.
Additionally, he said the district would soon initiate a universal screening for all of its students to determine who was most at risk academically. From the results of that assessment, he said, more resources could be allocated to families in need.
At several times throughout the Zoom meeting, McSheehy pushed back on suggestions that Vashon’s low rate of COVID cases, in contrast to greater King County, should be taken into consideration in terms of allowing more in-person student gatherings.
Public health officials, he said, had impressed on him the need for him to consider Vashon, with its large commuter population, as being a part of the bigger community of King and Pierce Counties, where transmission of the virus is high. Providing a safe environment for students and the community, he said, is the district’s paramount concern.
The discussion on Vashon took place against the backdrop of national anguish and uncertainty over public health concerns about schools.
In the past week, reopenings of schools in the Midwest and South were followed, with grim predictability, by news accounts of cases of COVID-19 spreading among students and teachers at the reopened facilities.
Additionally, on Monday, a new study was published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, reporting that 97,078 new confirmed infections among children were reported in the last two weeks of July — a 40 percent increase in overall reported infections among children.
In another phone interview with The Beachcomber late last week, McSheehy described his busy schedule in recent days, which has included negotiations with the school’s labor unions and almost daily meetings with principals and human resources staff at each of the Vashon schools.
His primary focus, he said, has been on health and safety protocols, students’ weekly schedules, and communication with parents.
He also spoke more about the work of the reopening team, both earlier in the year and currently. In the spring, he said, the group had been tasked with helping to analyze responses to surveys sent to teachers, students and district parents.
Those surveys, sent out in early June, included some questions seeking feedback about the district’s implementation of online school in the spring, as well as a lengthy required section focusing on preferences for education in the fall, with several different scenarios presented for online and in-person class hybrids.
According to McSheehy, VISD received 824 responses to the surveys. But he said he understood that surveys were “not a good tool” for some families, including some of Vashon’s Latino community.
Follow-up surveys, he said, will be sent out in September, to measure how online school is going.
He also spoke at more length about why the district’s new plan for the fall will not include a broad program of outdoor education — a topic of conversation on many community online forums in recent weeks. At the board meeting on July 23, McSheehy read aloud several letters from parents in the district, all advocating for this type of education on Vashon.
“At this time, I do not see VISD moving to an entirely outdoor education model as suggested by concerned parents,” he said. “I have listened to and understand their concerns. My heart is heavy that we are not able to see their students in-person on August 31 and we are going to do everything we can to bring their students back as soon as it is safe to do so.”
McSheehy did voice his support for some forms of outdoor education, saying, “Our [Chautauqua Elementary School] staff and leadership are prioritizing having students and staff outside as much as possible since we know the disease is not spread as effectively as when everyone is in an enclosed space.”
He also said he was working with Vashon Nature Center to develop teacher training modules for future outdoor education programs in the schools.
Calling online-only education “a broken model,” McSheehy said he was still eager to create a better version of it this fall, despite the difficulties.
“We need social interaction, and that’s what our teams have to improve upon,” he said.