County Mandates Virtual School; Most Parents Want In-Person Teaching

Schools must adjust to COVID-19 while many just want to get back to normal.

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UPDATE: The Peninsula School District announced Sept. 4 that in-person classroom instruction will begin Sept. 21 for K-1 students with remote learning options available. It has since been delayed to Sept. 28.

The Peninsula School District board of directors approved a guide for the district to reopen for online teaching at its meeting Aug. 13. Held virtually through Zoom and streamed live on Facebook, the meeting included a discussion with Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department Director Dr. Anthony Chen about his mandate requiring schools to open online classes only.

Chen clarified his July recommendation not to reopen any public or private school facilities. “I am not simply recommending but am requiring all schools to begin the school year using distance learning until COVID-19 disease activity in Pierce County decreases to a level safe to reopen schools for in-person learning,” he said.

Exceptions remain for classes of some special-needs students meeting in groups of five or less.

The district responded by switching gears from a plan for a partial, hybrid

reopening to creating the reopening guide approved by the board Aug. 13.

Focus groups of 650 teachers, parents and students reviewed the initial guide draft. The participants emphasized a need for balance between flexibility and structure, and the need for better communication and lead time between each reopening stage. Individual schools will finetune the guide to meet the needs of local families.

Balancing the risk of infection and community spread at a time when COVID-19 cases remain high, while also acknowledging the social and emotional impact of school closure, were front and center at the board meeting.

Going By the Numbers

Chen explained that the measure for COVID-19 activity used by the state and county is the number of cases per 100,000 over 14 days. That number initially fell below 20, but when Pierce County reopened to phase 2 in July, it skyrocketed to 149. At the time of the board meeting it had fallen to 120.

The state Department of Health issued guidance on when to begin to offer in-person learning on a limited basis. If the number of cases exceeded 75 per 100,000 over 14 days, remote learning was strongly recommended. DOH noted that when other countries have successfully opened schools, rates were below 50 and trending downward.

Based on infection rates and surveys from parents last spring, PSD initially planned to open schools with a dual model offering in-person learning with a remote option. Then infection rates spiked. The board approved a remote learning plan at its July 23 meeting following TPCHD recommendations. Chen later issued a letter Aug. 11 clarifying that all schools were required to open with remote learning.

The board asked Chen if PSD could use local data to determine whether or not to offer in-person teaching, since infection rates in local census tracts have been lower than the county as a whole. Chen said there were several reasons to stick with countywide numbers. Data is recorded by where people live and not where they contracted the infection. Cell phone data shows that people are very mobile; they may live in one place and work in another. He also said that when a location opens earlier than others, people flock there, increasing rates of infection.

Chen emphasized that if infection rates are high, the virus cannot be kept out. For instance, when infection rates were low, there was little transmission in essential businesses or daycare, but that changed after infection rates rose. If the rate is high, he said, infections will occur at school no matter how careful students and teachers are, resulting in quarantining and closures, and in further spread to the community.

Some board members relayed parent frustration that while childcare is deemed essential, school is not. Chen responded that childcare cannot be delivered remotely, and although everyone agrees that remote learning is not equivalent to in-person learning, it is an option.

The District Plan

“Our decision to open with remote learning does not change our commitment to physically returning children to the buildings for those who elect that option. It changes the timing depending on safety conditions,” PSD Superintendent Art Jarvis said.

Teachers will likely work from their classrooms and most students will learn remotely. The highest need students — such as those with disabilities or who are experiencing homelessness — will be onsite in small numbers with health safety measures in place. As infection rates fall to safe numbers, students will gradually return to school. Students with special needs will be the first to return, followed by elementary students and then middle and high school students. The ultimate hope is that all students who want to attend school in person will be able to do so by January, but that is dependent on infection rates.

The plan has two key aspects. First, there are all the physical measures needed to assure safety such as masks, distancing, scheduling, flow of students, use of lockers and many other considerations.

Second, there is the DOH decision process on when and how to resume in-person learning. The district developed a dial system, based primarily on infection rate metrics, going from stage 1, with full closure, to stage 6, with schools fully opened. In stage 2 teachers are onsite, as are the very highest need students. The continuum for stages 3 and 4 is being more fully defined but would call for a staged return of students by grade level, with a hybrid of remote and in-person learning. Stage 5 would be a dual platform to accommodate all students who wish to return and remote offered to those who do not.

What Parents Want

A survey conducted by PSD in July found that about 71% of district families wanted to return to classrooms.

PSD Families for Reopening Schools, a group organized largely through Facebook, held a rally opposite the construction site of Elementary School No. 9 on Harbor Hill Drive in Gig Harbor Aug. 13, before the school board meeting. Approximately 140 attendees listened to speeches calling for reopening, including from Rep. Jesse Young (R-Gig Harbor) and Maia Espinoza, a candidate for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“We believe schools can open safely and professionally,” said Jenn Bunch, one of five administrators of the Facebook group, which has 850 members. She is also the parent of a recent PHS senior, an incoming freshman and a preschooler.

“We are doing our best to expand our group, including doctors and lawyers to build our voice. Key Peninsula and Gig Harbor are different from the rest of Pierce County and we need to press that issue. (Remote learning) 2.0 doesn’t work for us, especially in a rural area. We wish the board had waited to present more options, spent more time reviewing what parents said at the focus groups and polled parents again.”

Tim Toerber, a father of two who attended the rally, said “I think there is a lot of risk that can be mitigated, similar to how when nurses first had to face the pandemic, they didn’t have a lot of safety precautions in place, but they are an essential service, similar to schools, so they had to show up to work and figure it out.”

His wife, Avery, added, “I think it’s an odd line to draw, at children, when you have places like Target and Nordstrom and Heritage (Distillery) where you can go out and get a drink and sit next to five perfect strangers, but why here? Why now? I think it’s a parent’s decision to decide what’s best for their family.”

One parent who didn’t attend the rally, and declined to be identified because she is also a paraeducator at PSD, said she was concerned that school board members seemed hesitant to follow the science behind Chen’s closure decision, and were ready to pressure schools to open faster than is safe.

“We need to start at stage 2 and do it well, then get ready for the next stage,” she said. She was frustrated that the district, like most in the state, seemed to have spent most of the summer planning for in-person teaching and then had to rush to get a remote learning plan in place. Her school is now planning how to adjust the guidelines to make them work for families. “We need to find nontraditional solutions to a nontraditional problem,” she said.

“There is no question that it puts a burden on families and is not ideal,” said Jody McVittie, co-founder and director of strategic partnerships for Sound Discipline, a nonprofit that works with schools, educators and parents through a number of programs to improve communication, reduce discipline problems and build social-emotional skills. She has worked in several schools in the district, and said there currently is no good data on the success of online virtual education, especially of young children.

“For kids to be resilient they need safety, predictability and community.” McVittie said it is time to focus on how teachers come together and connect with kids. “We need to be practical. You can do virtual community building. We can recover learning. We can’t recover dead people. This is not about winning or losing, but about making the best of a bad situation.”

Finding Solutions

Sheri Ahlheim, a Peninsula High School math teacher and vice president of the Peninsula Education Association teachers union, said, “We are not a monolithic group. When we polled our members some wanted to return to school, but the majority wanted to teach remotely at this time.”

She urged parents to give school a chance. “We will do the hard work to develop the curriculum and be able to make the shift to in-person teaching when students return and make it as easy as possible for parents.” She said she is worried that parents who elect to try home schooling until classes resume in-person will not have followed a curriculum that fits or developed a relationship with their teachers.

Lynda Richards, an English teacher at PHS and a product of Peninsula schools herself (as are her grown children) spent the summer taking professional development classes on remote teaching. “Teaching remotely is different,” she said. “But I am confident in my colleagues. We have an amazing workforce of teachers. This is daunting but it is awesome to see people rise to the task.”

She is concerned about her incoming students, she said: they will have had five months experiencing how not to be in school. But she is worried most about the disparities in internet access, the high-need students, and the divisiveness she has seen on social media.

Richards is part of a group exploring how the community can support families in need because of the phased school reopening. Gina Cabiddu, program manager of the Children’s Home Society of Washington - Key Peninsula Family Resource Center; Colleen Speer, executive director of Communities in Schools of Peninsula; Kellie Bennett, executive director of the Red Barn Youth Center in Key Center; and Mark Cockerill, a member of the Key Peninsula Community Council, are working together to identify several locations with reliable internet access that could provide students with a place to meet and study.

Although in its infancy, their plan is to provide transportation and adult supervision while complying with health department requirements.

Getting Connected

Kris Hagel, PSD executive director of Digital Learning, said the district plans to distribute additional hot spots and devices to families. Enrolled students have already been issued Chromebooks. There are several school buses with Wi-Fi and some will probably be placed in strategic neighborhoods, he said. All schools now have accessible Wi-Fi in their neighborhoods. KP Fire Department Chief Dustin Morrow said that all fire stations now have Wi-Fi available in their parking lots. The district is also creating tech help for parents and is planning to have evening hours available for working parents.

At the school district meeting, County Councilman Derek Young (D-Gig Harbor) said he is working with satellite providers to expand broadband access and is asking the council to make $5 million in federal CARES Act funding available to county school districts to help fill the need. He estimated that could amount to $250,000 to $300,000 for PSD.

Young is also working on a Pierce County initiative to bring broadband to underserved areas, but full service to the Key Peninsula is more than a year away.

School starts online Sept. 8.

“I’m sad for my children, I’m sad for the teachers,” said Renee Harding, a parent of three students at Evergreen Elementary School. “I would 100% have sent my kids back with or without masks. But I don’t want to be flip-flopped if they have to shut down.”