On July 22, an email from Vashon Island School District arrived in islanders’ inboxes, announcing that the district will begin school in the fall with online instruction only.
The email, sent by Superintendent Slade McSheehy, explained that he was acting on guidance from Seattle King County Public Health and Gov. Jay Inslee that it would not be safe to open schools for in-person by Aug. 31.
“I am saddened to announce that we plan for our students to begin the 2020-21 school year with a more robust and flexible 100% distance learning model,” McSheehy wrote. “At the same time, we are continuing to explore options to increase our outdoor spaces and examine the possibilities of one or two-day in-person outdoor education for small groups of students.”
In the email, McSheehy stated that all district schools will have weekly schedules for each student, daily engagement or assigned work for each student, and requirements for daily attendance, as per directives from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The needs of Vashon’s most vulnerable students will be addressed by the district in multiple ways, he wrote, including providing school meals to the students who rely on them and helping to address gaps in technology access so that all students can access distance learning.
McSheehy’s announcement followed on the heels of numerous other developments, including a report issued on July 15 by the Washington State Department of Health (DOH), Public Health — Seattle & King County and Institute for Disease Modeling that showed that re-opening schools without taking preventative measures could lead to a significant increase of COVID-19 in the population.
On July 22, Seattle Public Health – Seattle & King County issued a statement supporting school districts across King County that have made the decision to begin the school year with online learning.
Other nearby school districts, including Seattle, Auburn, Bellevue, Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Northshore and Lake Washington have also announced in recent days an all-online model of instruction for the fall.
And on July 23, Gov. Inslee announced sweeping rollbacks to Washington’s Safe Start re-opening plan due to surging case counts of COVID-19.
“Our suppression of this virus is not at the level it needs to be to continue … to allow more activity,” said Inslee.
In Phase 2 of the re-opening plan — where King County still sits due to its surging number of cases — gatherings of only five people outside of family members are allowed, and at a school board meeting on July 23, McSheehy’s said he hoped that it would be possible to bring groups of five students together at a time at some point soon. However, he made no promises, saying that the district’s ability to do so would be additionally determined by many factors including collective bargaining with the teacher’s union, Vashon Education Association.
The Seattle Education Association has issued a statement advocating 100% remote learning in the fall and calling in-person teaching “reckless,” given current rates of transmission. The Washington State Teachers Union (WEA) has also called on the governor to declare that schools open remotely in the fall.
On Sunday, the co-presidents of VEA, Jenny Granum and Sarah Hamill told The Beachcomber, in a jointly crafted email, that VEA has plans to meet with the district administration team starting on Aug. 6 to collaboratively create a memorandum of understanding to address the changes in working conditions for this upcoming year.
In response to a question regarding VEA’s response to requests made by community members to hold outdoor school and the district’s consideration of the idea of bringing small groups of five students together in-person, Granum and Hamill stated that VEA’s top priority was the health and safety of all staff and students.
They also expressed their conviction that teachers should lead the discussion of what is possible in the fall.
“While we completely understand the heartbreak and frustration families feel about the likelihood of online schooling in the fall (we feel it too), it is the teachers who are the experts and have a clear understanding of what is possible and what isn’t with a group of students in a classroom setting,” they wrote.
Granum and Hamill said they would work, in the coming week, to get input from VEA members focusing on resources and strategies to ensure that students receive the best education possible and prioritizing equity for VISD’s most vulnerable student population.
“It was extremely hard to go to online learning with no systems, notice, or strategies in place last March,” they wrote. “Our teachers need time, training, and support creating a schedule for our students that is a more robust system for online teaching and learning.”
The VISD school board meeting, which was held on Zoom and is viewable at tinyurl.com/y2xqxofd, began with public comments read aloud by McSheehy, including more than a dozen letters and a video submitted by parents in the district expressing frustrations with the districts’ implementation of online school in the spring, and urging McSheehy and the school board to consider a program of outdoor education as an alternative to all-online school.
Many of the letters came from parents of young elementary-aged children, who said it was particularly difficult for their small children to concentrate on online lessons. Others cited the loss of income they would face if they continued having to stay home, helping their small children at home navigate online school. Still another letter cited internet connectivity problems.
Chautauqua Elementary School teacher Margorie Butcher also sent a letter, filled with a raft of suggestions to navigate school in the continued age of coronavirus. McSheehy read only part of the letter at the meeting, citing its length.
“Our mission and directives talk about elements of outdoor learning, we have a campus that would make some universities jealous,” Butcher wrote, in part.
The board meeting continued with a brief discussion of a financial report, prepared by VISD’s Executive Director of Business and Operations Matt Sullivan. Responding to a question from board member Bob Hennessey, McSheehy said that expenditures were tracking largely in line with what had been budgeted for the year.
Later in the meeting, however, McSheehy told the board that the district would most likely not be able to continue free school meal delivery to all Vashon school families — a sizeable community outreach gesture made possible in the spring by $122,000 in COVID relief funding from the CARES Act, as well as additional donations from the community.
“We can’t afford to do what we did last spring,” he said, adding that the school would still continue to provide free meals to students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
Also for financial reasons, he said, the district would most likely not be able to provide the same level of childcare options for parents that had been offered in the spring through a partnership with Vashon Kids.
“Final decisions haven’t been made, but unless we get additional funding, it will be an impossibility to do what we did before,” McSheehy said.
The board will reconvene on Aug. 13 to formally approve a reopening plan.
Following a question posed by board member Hennessey as to the process of developing a more fully detailed plan for what school would look like in the fall, and providing further clarity on the possibility of providing some kind of outdoor education, McSheehy said the process would take some time to develop.
“It isn’t a snap of the finger process,” he said. “I’m going to go out on a limb — we’ve had staff reach out to us and say, ‘I want to do more than just be online.’”
But as McSheehy recounted these conversations, he seemed to choke up.
“My heart is so heavy with our families, and for our youngest students — we’re not closing any doors,” he said. “My heart is heavy for staff members who are at risk and want to make sure their families are safe. We have to make sure folks are safe, first and foremost.”
In a phone interview, McSheehy said at the time he became emotional, he was thinking about dozens of emails he had received from Vashon parents, asking for outdoor education for their children.
Additionally at the meeting, McSheehy announced a change-up in the sports calendar for the school year, mandated by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. Football and girls soccer will be moved to the spring season, he said. Cross country, tennis and golf are currently scheduled to take place in the fall.
McSheehy said in recent days that he has conducted meetings, or planned to have meetings soon, with multiple stakeholders and community partners including the Harbor School, Vashon Wilderness Program, Vashon Kids, Journeymen, Sisterhood, Vashon Nature Center, Camp Sealth and Vashon Center for the Arts.
He said that Allison Reid, executive director of VCA, had told him the arts center would continue to offer arts enrichment programs to the schools via their long-established partnership with VAIS, Vashon Artists in Schools. Halstead-Reid had also offered VCA’s outdoor spaces, as well as its auditorium and video streaming equipment and services for use by the district as needed, he said.
To see updates on the school’s fall reopening plans, visit vashonsd.org/Page/2517.
Harbor School goes online but plans small, in-person groups
Harbor School, a small private school on Vashon with less than 100 students in elementary through middle-school grades, has announced that it too will hold remote classes in the fall, according to a schedule determined by the four stages of Gov. Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan.
Teri Rutledge, Head of School for the Harbor School, detailed how the school will proceed while King County remains in Phase 2 of Inslee’s plan.
“While opening the campus may not be allowable in Phase 2, small outdoor gatherings may be permissible,” she said. “We are planning on hosting small groups, outdoor classes or meetings for students during Phase 2, at a minimum of once a week per student. We believe that even a small amount of in-person connection with teachers and peers will support our students’ learning, well being and emotional health.”
In a phone interview, Rutledge said the school’s small size gave it an advantage in terms of hosting small gatherings.
“All of our class sizes will be under 15 students — that’s one of the reasons we may be able to meet in small groups,” she said. “… We think those small groups could bolster kids’ engagement and keep them feeling connected to their classmates and teachers.”
The school’s current plan is also detailed in full on its website, harborschool.org, but Rutledge said she would continue to monitor directives from the state and be in regular contact with the Harbor School community if there are any changes to the plan. Tuition costs for the school range from $11,620 for grades K-3 to $16,815 for middle school grades. Scholarships are considered on a case by case application process, Rutledge said, noting that the school has seen increased needs for financial aid.
“We are working hard, especially for current parents whose situations have changed, to provide that if we are able,” she said.