Following new guidance issued in December from Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington State Department of Health, Vashon Island School District is tentatively preparing to phase in limited in-person learning for elementary-aged children starting in early to mid-February.
Go or no-go meeting planned for Feb. 1
In a letter to district parents dated Jan. 14, VISD Superintendent Slade McSheehy said that a “go or no go” decision on the early-to-mid-February timeline would be made at a meeting scheduled for Feb. 1.
Those taking part in the meeting will include the district’s health services team, an official with Public Health Seattle King County, members of the island’s Medical Reserve Corps, labor leadership, and principals and vice-principals of Vashon’s schools.
McSheehy’s letter also outlined what a “go” decision would mean for local families.
Vashon’s hybrid learning scheme would start with Chautauqua Elementary’s kindergartners arriving back in the school for four half-days per week as soon as early February.
Grades 1 to 3, and then grades 4 and 5, would be phased in every two weeks after that, following a review of COVID activity and DOH guidance.
Elementary school classes will be divided in half, into groups of 10 to 12 students. These two groups of students will spend either mornings or afternoons in the classroom four days a week. Students will take part in distance learning for the rest of the day, either preceding or following their in-person experience.
Parents who wish for their children to continue with online school only will be able to opt-out of hybrid learning, though it is possible that their teachers and classmates will change due to staffing configurations of the hybrid scenario. VISD’s hybrid model was chosen in October by McSheehy in consultation with his principals and other school leaders. It was not the preferred scenario on surveys sent by the district to both parents and teachers earlier in the fall.
Chautauqua families preferred a model of students attending two full days with three days of distance learning, while teachers preferred a model of two afternoons in person, with all mornings being filled with distance learning.
In-person school for grades 6 to 12 is not expected to begin until April 16, at the earliest, under a different hybrid model.
Push for school staff vaccinations
The move to hybrid education comes at a time when post-holiday cases numbers have remained stubbornly high in King County, more variants of the coronavirus are emerging, and the pace of vaccinations throughout the county and in Washington has slowed due to a botched distribution plan by the Trump administration. As President-Elect, Joe Biden pledged to speed up the pace.
But in any case, teachers and school support staff in Washington are not set to be vaccinated en masse immediately.
Under Washington’s current vaccine rollout, only teachers ages 50 or older who already work in congregate settings are slated to be vaccinated in February, with those younger than 50 who already work in congregate settings not scheduled for vaccination until April. On Monday, Inslee said all persons ages 65 and older could be immediately vaccinated.
In a letter to district parents on Jan. 14, VISD superintendent Slade McSheehy said that he was advocating, along with state legislators, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction leadership, and Washington Education Association for all school employees to be moved up in the line for the vaccine.
Still, he noted that a number of nearby districts — including Mercer Island, South Kitsap, Tacoma, Bellevue and Snoqualmie, have already begun to phase in hybrid learning for elementary school children in their schools.
According to new 11-page guidelines from the Washington Department of Health, school superintendents and districts may decide whether to reopen their schools regardless of case numbers in their communities.
These guidelines, which can be read in their entirety at tinyurl.com/yyegsr6k, also reference research about case numbers in Washington public and private schools that have operated in-person or in hybrid models during the pandemic.
Data in the guidelines make a case that incidents of infections and outbreaks in these schools have remained limited, even in areas with high rates of infection, when schools have followed strict safety protocols.
New guidelines, by the numbers
The DOH guidelines offer metrics for decision-making in terms of bringing students back to the classroom.
These suggest that communities with high rates of transmission (greater than 350 cases per 100,000 people over the course of 14 days) limit in-person learning to groups of no more than 15 students in pre-K through grade 5, and those with the highest needs.
Districts in communities with moderate infection rates (50 to 350 cases per 100,000 over the course of 14 days) are suggested to prioritize pre-K to grades 5 and middle school and add high school students when case rates drop to below 200 cases per 100,000.
Full in-person education, according to the new metrics, should be considered when case rates dip below 50 cases per 100,000 people for 14 days.
According to the King County COVID dashboard, case rates in King County stood at 348.8 cases per 100,000 people for the 14-day period ending on Jan. 11.
Implications for teachers and students
McSheehy said that throughout the pandemic, he had made decisions based on public health recommendations and would continue to do so, exercising an abundance of caution.
“I’m in no rush to make a bad decision,” he said in a phone call with The Beachcomber. “I don’t want to have kids in and out of school, then in and out.”
He also said he was also currently meeting on a weekly basis with the leadership of Vashon’s local teacher’s union (VEA) as well as the leadership of the union representing support staff in the building (VESP). Meetings with the district’s healthcare staff are also ongoing.
Both unions currently have bargaining agreements, signed in the fall, that stipulate a wide array of COVID safety measures, sick leave considerations, and a requirement that they be notified four weeks prior to being called back into the classroom.
Another union, SEIU, represents kitchen, custodial and maintenance workers at the school. That union did not negotiate a COVID-specific bargaining agreement with the district, but the district will extend many of the same considerations to those staff members as well, McSheehy said.
McSheehy acknowledged that the leadership of both VEA and VESP have expressed concern to him that many of their members don’t feel safe coming back to school at the present time.
Some staff members, he said, have suggested that Vashon follow the Seattle school district’s plan, which calls for the resumption of in-person learning on March 1.
A letter from first and second-grade teacher Jill Reifschneider, submitted as a public comment to a Jan. 14 school board meeting, included a lengthy list of concerns about returning to the classroom.
Reifschneider said that her online class attendance was 100 percent, every day, and she wanted to keep her class intact as her students were learning well in the present scenario.
“The Vashon hybrid model threatens to disrupt all this,” she said. “If fact, it would create upheaval to both the learning and relationships we have worked so hard to achieve.”
She also recounted her personal experience of having five immediate family members who work in public schools elsewhere. All of them, she said, had worked in schools that had reopened, only to close again due to outbreaks. Three of those family members contracted COVID at school, one of whom then infected her household.
The hybrid model chosen by VISD would have her teaching at school all day long, four days a week, with exposure to all of her students, Reifschneider said.
She also questioned how cleaning could occur in the classroom in the tight time frame between her morning and afternoon shifts. She said that while she had always cleaned surfaces in her classroom in the past, her new cleaning duties would carry onerous extra risk and responsibility.
“In the past, if I missed a spot, it would not cause grave illness or death,” she wrote.
Reifschneider also questioned how substitute teachers could be found in the hybrid scenario, and what would happen if in-person teachers and or students had to quarantined for lengthy periods.
“I do not believe that a classroom in a building full of hundreds of children and many adults is a safe place at this time,” she wrote.