With COVID-19 cases increasing in Snohomish County, the Edmonds School District is scrambling to decide when and how to transition students from remote to in-person learning.
For weeks, district leaders and staff have been discussing how students would be able to safely return to school buildings after starting the 2020-21 school year learning remotely. One thing they agree on is the importance of bringing students enrolled in special education programs back as soon as possible.
Last week, staff presented a four-stage plan to return students to classrooms. In the first stage, 163 students in special education programs would attend class in 10 school buildings across the district. This would include deaf and hard of hearing, developmental kindergarten and mentally fragile students, said Superintendent Gustavo Balderas.
“These are the kids that need to be on our campus,” he said.
The next stage of the plan would bring K-2 students back using a hybrid learning model the board approved in July, with students splitting their time between in-person and remote learning. Some pre-kindergarten programs would also be using the hybrid model. In addition, on-site services would be available for students experiencing homelessness and English learners.
Under the Stage 3, kindergarten through second-grade students would switch to in-person learning four days a week while third- through sixth-grade students would move into the hybrid model. This stage would allow classrooms to increase the number of students attending in-person preschool and in-person special education programs.
During the final stage before reopening schools entirely, K-2 students would continue attending school in-person four days a week while third- through 12th-grade students would use the hybrid model. Stage 4 would also allow an increase in the number of days for special education programs.
Establishing a timeline for the latter three stages has been a challenge for staff, as the re-entry plan is contingent on the county’s number of reported COVID-19 cases. Initially, staff proposed moving into Stage 1 mid-October, but a recent spike in positive cases countywide prompted the district to extend the date. Earlier this week, the Snohomish Health District reported more than 100 cases per 100,000 people in the county. According to Balderas, the threshold for reopening school buildings is 75 cases per 100,000 people.
“We are going up (in COVID cases) and that is a concern for us to look at,” he said.
As a result, he said the district will wait until early November to implement Stage 1. At the Edmonds School Board’s Oct. 20 study session, Balderas also recommended waiting until after the winter holidays before bringing students back under Stage 2.
“We’re trending the wrong way,” he said. “For the benefit of our kids, our faculty, our staff and our safety, we’re making sure we’re doing things with great caution.”
Balderas said health officials anticipate a potential increase in positive cases as families come together for the holidays and that the seasonal flu is also a concern. Instead of rushing students back into classrooms, Balderas said staff are focused on laying a solid foundation for re-entry.
“Our number-one goal right now is working on Stage 1 and doing Stage 1 well for the neediest kids,” he said. “We’ll take our time to see how the trend is going and see if we can get to Stage 2.”
School administrators are still preparing for when students eventually return to in-person learning. Each school principal is required to create a building re-entry plan that includes guidance from the Washington State Department of Health and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Schools must also have plans for navigating through buildings while maintaining social distancing.
“We are working very hard on assuring that we have all the PPE (personal protective equipment) and the right protocols and safety procedures on all the school campuses,” Balderas said.
Schools will also be taking precautions regarding students’ health. Each day before coming to school, families will be asked to perform a health screening for each of their students. After arriving on campus, students will be subject to another health screening before entering the building. Following the county’s guidance, those who test positive for COVID-19 will not be allowed to return to the school for 10 days, until their fever has been gone for 24 hours and their symptoms have improved, said Student Health Services Manager Mara Marano-Bianco.
Students will also be required to wear face masks, which Marano-Bianco said has not been as challenging as expected. Those students who have already returned to school have been responding well to wearing masks, and if there are any issues with face masks, staff are prepared to address them, she said.
“We are seeing that the capacity for most children is there,” she said. “We do recognize, however, that there are going to be those special situations where children may have difficulty wearing a mask.”
The district’s bargaining teams have been working with faculty and staff employee groups to reach agreements on working conditions. During the Oct. 20 study session, Director Nancy Katims asked what is being done to help special education teachers who work with students with intensive support needs. Katims noted the teachers have asked for shorter school days, shorter class times and small class sizes with plenty of adults available to assist.
Balderas responded that Katims’ questions are already part of the bargaining discussion and the superintendent offered to have staff present a draft schedule for special education programs based on what the district has already determined. He added that staff could offer a “deep dive” into reopening plans.
Child care will still be available as the district moves through the planned stages, Assistant Superintendent Helen Joung said at the Oct. 20 study session.
“There’s a really positive relationship happening,” she said. “So, we’re going to continue with this model and making sure our kids are really supported well.”
Under Stage 1, Joung said the district would continue to offer the same type of child care now provided during remote learning. During Stage 2, child care will start to look like it did before the pandemic, with morning and afternoon options available Monday through Friday, except Wednesdays when schools will be closed for extra cleaning, she said.
Information about child care programs, locations and pricing can be found on the district’s website.
While students remain in remote learning, district staff are asking families to let them know if their student will be returning to in-person learning by filling out a student intent form. Assistant Superintendent Dana Geaslen said the intent forms will help prepare for staffing needs across the district.
Geaslen said parents can change their mind at any time. However, she said they cannot guarantee students who choose full-remote learning will have the same teacher they started the school year with.
“We just won’t know until we get all of those responses back,” Geaslen said.
–By Cody Sexton