Last week, Vashon School Superintendent Slade McSheehy announced a timeline for a return to in-person school — with the caveat that going forward with the plan is dependent on King County improving its metrics for COVID-19 activity.
The plan, as detailed in emails sent to parents and in a Zoom-hosted school board meeting Oct. 9, allows for a slow ramp-up of hybrid education that includes both limited time in the classroom and continued online learning at home.
Importantly, it also provides the option for all VISD students to continue with online learning only, if that is the preference of their families.
Under the plan, if public health data on COVID-19 cases returns and remains in the moderate range, kindergartners will have the opportunity to return to the classroom first, starting Nov. 9, for half-day sessions four days a week. Other Chautauqua grades will then be brought back in two-week intervals from the lowest to the highest grades after that, he said.
Students at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School are not likely to return to in-person learning until at least after the school’s semester break, at the beginning of 2021, McSheehy said.
The plans were announced last week because a recent bargaining agreement signed by VISD and the teacher’s union, Vashon Education Association (VEA), mandates that four weeks notice must be given to teachers before any return to the in-person instruction.
However, all the plans will be put on hold if King County virus rates continue to rise in weeks to come.
McSheehy did not seek board approval for his plan, which he developed in consultation with district school principals and other members of his administration.
In an email, McSheehy stated that the board’s lack of decision-making authority in terms of approving plans for schools reopening was standard for most other school districts in King and Pierce County.
“I’m not aware of any other district Boards who are voting on plans,” he wrote. “It would be very difficult to take these kinds of votes since information continues to change at such a rapid pace.”
He added that he soon hoped to have a draft of a COVID Response Resolution that would specify guidelines about oversight and communication with the board.
VISD’s announcement of its plan to re-open schools came a week after three school districts in Pierce County scrapped plans to immediately brings students back to school for hybrid learning, due to rising case numbers of COVID-19 in Pierce County.
According to the Tacoma’s News Tribune, the Clover Park School District board of directors cast an informal vote on Friday, Oct. 2, in support of their superintendent’s decision to postpone an Oct. 5 restart date for hybrid learning and continue with online-only courses until at least Dec. 4.
On Oct. 5, Puyallup School District canceled a plan to bring kindergarten and first-grade students the following week, and the Tacoma Public School District also announced last week its students would remain in remote learning.
In Seattle, a workgroup made up of district staff and teacher’s union members have been tasked with making reopening recommendations to the superintendent and no plans have yet been announced.
Reopening won’t happen if cases are high
In his letter to district parents, sent on Oct. 8, McSheehy said that re-opening would hinge on metrics including King County Key Indicators for disease activity.
In early October, he explained, the total number of COVID-19 cases for the last 14 days per 100,000 people in King County had dipped to 53 — well into the “moderate” range which allowed for hybrid learning according to the Department of Health’s Decision Making Tree.
However, cases in King County are now on an uptick, and in a high range which McSheehy said would not allow for schools in Phase 2 counties of King County to reopen.
On Monday, Oct. 11, the case numbers for King County stood at 86 per 100,000. In all, metrics for King County were in the red zone in five of eight key indicators of virus activities, including the number of cases, whether the outbreak was growing, the risk of hospitalization, the risk of death, and numbers of tests done. Positive indicators, noted in green, included the speed of testing, overall available beds in hospitals, and numbers of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.
In an email last weekend, McSheehy said that he was carefully tracking public health information and would be required by Public Health Seattle King County to pause his plan if case numbers remained high.
“If the activity level is high next week as well, and that is what I’m anticipating, we will be adjusting our timeline, moving away from the Nov. 9 date,” he said. “For us to start, I would like to see low activity levels for a period of three to four weeks. Again, we are taking a very careful and cautious approach.”
District chooses models of hybrid learning
Whenever hybrid learning happens on Vashon, parents now know what it will look like, and can find out more about the plan on the district’s website, vashonsd.org, under the “Coronavirus Update” button on the homepage.
When McMurray and VHS students return, they will be divided into smaller cohorts, with each group attending school in person two days a week and participating in online learning on other days of the week.
McSheehy also said that his administration would re-evaluate whether its controversial switch from semesters to a quarter-based calendar for secondary students would continue after the winter break.
The different models were chosen by McSheehy, in consultation with principals and other administrators, after hundreds of teachers, parents and high school students responded to surveys sent out by the district, asking them to rate different models of hybrid learning.
Both McMurray and VHS families showed a strong preference for the two-day in-person and distance learning rotation model, as did McMurray and VHS staff.
However, the selected hybrid program for Chautauqua students was not the first choice indicated on surveys for both teachers and families.
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 live distance learning.
The model chosen by administrators will return Chautauqua students to classrooms for half-day sessions four days a week, with additional time spent in distance learning.
In written survey responses, 22 Chautauqua families mentioned child care being a concern and wanting a full day hybrid with fewer transitions.
However, at the board meeting, Goetzel said that the school would work with parents — including 30 commuter families — who need full-day support to help find child care at places including Vashon Kids and Camp Sealth. She also warned that Chautauqua might need to hire more classroom teachers in this particular hybrid scenario.
In survey responses, a high number of Chautauqua staff commented on concern for their safety with a return and wanted to delay the return if possible.
However, Goetzel said it was important to bring students back to the classroom as much as possible.
“We do think this is the best model for equity,” Goetzel said. “We want to meet the needs of all kids, and there are kids that really need to be in school, and the way that we make sure they have food, that they are protected, that they have access to learning, is by bringing them to school. And so by having kids in person four days a week, we’re going to reach those kids that don’t have the supports at home that help them access their learning.”
Safety measures to protect students and staff were also discussed, and McSheehy included a 19-page COVID-19 safety handbook in documents introduced at the meeting. The handbook, written by a team of VISD personnel including the school’s nurse, Sarah Day, details how VISD will specifically fulfill public health requirements required in the Department of Health’s Decision-Making Tree, and will be made available to all families in the district.
Other agenda items in the almost three-hour-long meeting included a review of instructional materials used and recommended by the district, a report on English Language Learner (ELL) program metrics, and a financial report that detailed how enrollment is now down by 17 students district-wide. The drop in enrollment could spell a $170,000 loss of state funding for the district.
The board also had a first look at a bargaining agreement that included a pay raise for support personnel at the school that would spell additional costs to the district of more than $100,000 over the course of the next two years.
McSheehy also detailed the work of focus groups convened by the district, including a Latino focus group. At that group’s last meeting, he said, there was “agreement that we should better understand what services [including tutoring] are being provided by whom” — a reference to both Vashon Youth & Family Services and the grassroots group Comunidad Latino.
He also said the district did not have long-term, sustainable funding to provide services from families whose home language is not English, and that he hoped the Latino focus group could help provide him with data and information on what is needed to approach legislators about this need.
Board members also reviewed a policy on attendance, that details the interventions school staff must make with students who have unexcused absences. Under the policy, students who have more than seven unexcused absences in one month, or 10 unexcused absences total, can be referred to the juvenile court system. Under the scenario of online school, lack of broadband or internet connectivity is considered justification for excused absences.
Following up on a short discussion that took place at a board meeting two weeks ago, board members Sparks and Zabette Macomber said they also welcomed feedback from the public on an idea, posed by community activist Hilary Emmer, of replacing the Pirate mascot with a more affirming and inclusive mascot.