Peninsula School District Adapts to Closure

Teachers and staff keeping students connected, fed and learning in a changed world.


Sheri Ahlheim was teaching her sixth period math class at Peninsula High School March 12 when some of her students shouted out the news coming in on their cell phones. Gov. Jay Inslee had just announced schools would close for six weeks. Three weeks later, as the crisis continued to unfold, Inslee decided that schools would remain closed for the rest of the term.

Following guidance from the Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI), PSD spent the next few days ensuring students had food and setting up communication protocols.

From March 19 to April 10, PSD focused on providing meals with the Grab and Go program, providing childcare for first responders and medical professionals, and surveying families to assess their needs, including internet access. Teachers were asked to engage and connect with students and provide educational opportunities.

“We are building an airplane while trying to fly it.”

April 20 marked a shift to the Continuous Learning Opportunities Program, where staff started teaching essential new learning. The goal is to prepare students to enter the next grade in the fall. OSPI provided guidelines, including how much time each student should spend in learning activities each day — from 45 minutes in kindergarten to three hours in high school. Teachers will keep office hours, six hours per week, when students and parents can reach them.

Hugh Maxwell, principal at Evergreen Elementary School, said they have worked hard to keep connected. Bette McCord, the office manager, has been at the school for more than 15 years and her deep knowledge of all the families was invaluable, he said. Dean of Students Christy Dalby worked with Tricia Endsley, the Communities in Schools of Peninsula site coordinator, to prepare take-home packets and other supplies for students.

Marci Cummings-Cohoe teaches second grade at Vaughn Elementary, where she also serves as the technology lead. Several of her students are English language learners and do not have good internet service. “Within the building you can create that sense of equity. But on the KP with poor internet infrastructure inequity is so apparent,” she said. She was able to connect with the students and their families through an interpreter.

Teri Hammon, who teaches music at Evergreen, has had class meetings via Zoom, but internet connectivity is a problem, especially if there are multiple students in a household. One parent asked if she could reschedule the class because her other two students needed the connection at the same time.

Hammon was not alone when she described her experience as “building an airplane while trying to fly it.”

"Lots of grace needs to be built into this."

Teachers are wary of overloading parents with communications. Lori Maxwell, who teaches third grade at Purdy Elementary, said “It can be a challenge not to bombard parents. They get communications from the district, the school, the team, individual teachers.” She said that some parents are thankful for what schools have offered and others want more assignments.

Ahlheim said the first few weeks involved a lot of sitting at her computer attending Zoom meetings — with the whole faculty, team members, students, and also for her work with the union. She sent students several worksheets each week so they wouldn’t lose skills. Now that the focus is on new learning, she is collaborating with her team. “We have an amazing department and team and have been sharing the tasks,” she said.

Schoology, the district’s learning management system, is used regularly at the high school and at Key Peninsula Middle School. It offers a single platform where students can access lessons and resources. “It is open-ended so it offers lots of flexibility for teachers to make it work for their style,” Ahlheim said.

“We’re not turning into an online school. We’re not equipped to do that, and we are in the middle of a pandemic,” said Assistant Superintendent John Hellwich, who has led the district’s planning for distance learning. “Families are stressed, their lives are upended. But we need to be sure (students) don’t miss the important pieces of each subject that they would learn during the springtime session.”

Hellwich said the district continues to work on how to assess learning. For K-8, grading will be on a pass-fail basis, but how to assess high school students, where grade point averages are important, is still under discussion.

“Lots of grace needs to be built into this,” Ahlheim said. “If we can get some kids to move on, they will be the seeds to help the whole class move forward next year.” For parents, she said, “We are all realistic. It is OK to do what you can do. It’s not worth fighting over. The lessons will stay up on Schoology and when the student is ready, they will be there. Mental health and wellbeing are most important. Do what you have to do to stay sane.”

Message to PSD Staff from Interim Superintendent Art Jarvis

(Excerpt from April 7 message)

As you have all heard, by order of Gov. Jay Inslee our schools will remain physically closed for the balance of the 2019-2020 school year. Members of our senior class will have lost virtually all of their senior activities and celebrations. Students throughout the system are wondering if they will need to repeat their school year and others wonder if they will have lost required learning that will damage their education in the future.

The truth of the moment is that we have very few minutes to mourn the loss. The obligation is now on our shoulders to do something about the challenge we have been given. The Governor and the State Superintendent (Chris Reykdal) speak openly about the extraordinary challenge to meet the needs of children equitably — even when everything we do seems to work against the equity. A newspaper article about the weak internet signal strength on the Key Peninsula points to the complexity of “just putting it online.”

We must now help our seniors in every way we can imagine. We will be determining final credits, grades, transcripts, recommendations, and whatever it takes to help these young people get what they need at the moment to be able to move on. We will find avenues to celebrate the achievements of their “almost” 13 years.

Simultaneously, another 8,000 children and students are now waiting to hear that they, too, will be OK. As never before, they and their parents await word from their teachers, principals and staff about what they might be able to do next. Fifteen days in March began the journey for them and for all of us. Now we have no more time to look for places to start; we have to deliver.

Issues of grades, credits, and hours become less significant than the interactions between students and staff. Now, in a way that none could have foreseen, we are free of the restrictions and free to innovate — because we can, and because we need to.