The Peninsula School Board voted 4-1 to open schools without students Sept. 8, approving the Remote Learning 2.0 plan proposed by Superintendent Art Jarvis. Director Natalie Wimberley cast the lone No vote at the July 23 board meeting.
The plan calls for almost all students to begin the 2020-21 school year with a full remote learning model and to bring students back for in-person learning later this year if possible. Some high-need students may return to classrooms before then.
Held at district administrative offices where directors and the superintendent met in person, masked and socially distanced, the board meeting was live-streamed on both Facebook and YouTube. Remote presentations from district personnel were followed by a lengthy series of public comments made via Zoom. Letters and emails previously sent to the board were read aloud. The meeting lasted well over four hours before going into executive session following the vote.
Well over 1,000 comments were made online during the meeting ranging from support to accusations of indifference for the well-being of children.
Jarvis said district administrators, staff and teachers invested an immense amount of time and effort into creating a plan for two education platforms: On-site, in-person learning and a full-time remote learning and teaching system. The original plan had been to implement both platforms with the September opening of school, but local and state COVID-19 infection rates now exceed those of April.
At the same time, hospitalizations and fatalities attributed to COVID-19 began to decrease in June, while more and younger people (ages 40 and under) are becoming infected and remaining ill longer, according to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
Members of the school board expressed conflicted feelings about adopting the remote learning plan, some having stated in a meeting the week prior their preference to fully reopen in September.
According to members David Olson and Natalie Wimberley, the school board faced making the decision in the absence of mandates or consistent statements from state leadership, health department officials, or the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction on whether returning to classrooms would be safe for children, staff and families this fall.
Dr. Anthony Chen, director of the TPCHD, said in a statement to superintendents: “Based on the COVID-19 disease activity in Pierce County and our region, I do not feel it is safe to open schools in September for traditional classroom learning,” but fell short of issuing a mandate.
“Ours is not a world of production and machines. Ours is a universe of personal touches and interactions,” Jarvis said. “Kindergarten hugs and runny noses are but two in a list of hundreds of normal happenings each day.”
After conducting a district-wide survey, nearly 71% of 4,270 respondents said they wanted to return to in-person learning while approximately 22% were undecided. Of those undecided, many preferred to have full remote learning provided by PSD staff.
Jarvis said there are clear indications many families are weighing whether it is safe yet for children to return to a school setting. Direct concerns about child safety, as well as concerns about children being asymptomatic carriers, raise significant questions about whether schools can provide the necessary level of safety.
“PSD is the largest employer in the community and recent surges in the virus have translated into extraordinary levels of concern and anxiety in the staff,” Jarvis said.
“One thing we do know is that remote learning in the upcoming year is not the same as last spring, which was an emergency contingency learning plan we were forced into by the pandemic,” said Kris Hagel the PSD executive director of digital learning.
PSD will email a Remote Learning 2.0 Guidebook for students, families and staff Aug. 5 about how teaching online will work in the fall, saying it is not simply a matter of uploading curriculum but of continuing to engage and support students as much as possible.
The guidebook will also be posted to the PSD website and print copies will be available upon request.
“This is not going to be like it was,” said one Key Peninsula elementary school teacher, who declined to be identified for this article. “We spent a lot of time learning what to do while we were doing it; now, we’ve got that part down. It will be hard for everyone but it can work.”
In a July 24 statement to PSD families, the district said: “We recognize these are unprecedented times and decisions about how to navigate school during the pandemic may represent relief for some and significant disappointment and hardship for others.