Island school districts likely returning to remote learning

Increasing case numbers in the county have school officials considering a move to at-home learning.

The recent increase in COVID-19 cases in Island County has pushed schools on Whidbey Island to reconsider in-person learning plans.

While South Whidbey and Coupeville schools districts have already decided to move back to distance learning for all students, Oak Harbor school board members are still debating whether to keep classrooms open.

Oak Harbor has already told families that a move to at-home learning is likely coming based on its current reopening plan and the county’s case numbers, but multiple school board members said Monday they wished to revisit their reopening plan to try to keep kids in school.

The school district notified families of the likely return to at-home learning in an email and on its website in late November.

“We didn’t want to pull the rug out from under people,” said Conor Laffey, a spokesperson for the school district.

Oak Harbor Public Schools’ reopening plan outlined how the district would evaluate whether to move forward or backward with bringing students back into the classroom every four weeks.

If case counts were less than 35 per 100,000 population on average over a four-week period, the district would move forward in its phased reopening, according to Laffey.

The district moved to Phase 3 of their reopening plan in mid-October, which saw pre-K through sixth grade students go to a hybrid rotation in-person class while older grades stayed at home.

To date, an infected student at North Whidbey Middle School in late October is the only case the district knows about, according to Laffey.

However, if the numbers grew above 60 per 100,000 population, the district would move backward in its phased reopening plan, Laffey said.

The Oak Harbor school district is slated to review COVID-19 numbers on Dec. 8. Island County has been above 60 cases per 100,000 people since the Oct. 18-31 reporting period.

Laffey said students and teachers would be given until Dec. 14 to begin at-home learning, should the school board vote to return to it.

“This was the plan that was approved in August, and so far, that’s what we’re sticking with,” he said.

As of Nov. 25, there have been 603 cases of COVID-19 recorded in Island County.

Public Health Director Keith Higman told the school board during its Monday night meeting that two more deaths because of COVID-19 occurred over the long weekend.

Higman suggested that new guidelines about thresholds for school reopening may be coming soon, but that the decision is still left to school board members.

“I do anticipate we are going to see new guidance in the future that will likely include different numbers than the numbers we have today, but I do not anticipate the guidance will come before the governor’s current guidance is lifted,” Higman said.

School board members were still undecided about whether to reverse the school district’s reopening plan or not. Multiple school board members voiced support for revisiting the district’s reopening plan and wished to keep classrooms open.

The board plans to schedule a special meeting to discuss revising the reopening plan before the district’s winter break begins Dec. 18, although a firm date had not been set as of press time.

The Coupeville School District made the decision over a month ago to roll back its reopening plan, with only preschool, kindergarten and special education students participating in some in-person learning.

Superintendent Steve King explained at the time that the precautions were taken in response to increasing COVID-19 cases, the upcoming holidays and flu season.

As of last Wednesday, however, the school district made the decision to move back to distance learning for everyone, from Nov. 30 through Jan. 8.

“For those students and families who have been able to have in-person services this fall, I am sorry that we are having to make this change,” King wrote in a letter to Coupeville families and staff members.

The Coupeville School Board will have the chance to re-evaluate at its meeting scheduled for Jan. 11.

Similarly, the South Whidbey School District also changed its reopening plan. In a letter to families and staff last week, South Whidbey Superintendent Jo Moccia detailed the school district’s transition back to 100 percent distance learning.

In an email to the South Whidbey Record, Moccia said the decision was made Nov. 25 after receiving updated information from the Island County Health Department.

All students, even the ones who were in the process of being brought back for in-person learning, will be returning to remote learning.

“This is very difficult for all of us to hear and it is especially hard for families as we all want our children in school for their emotional well being,” Moccia wrote in the letter to staff and families.

“I am extremely sad to have to move backwards in our progress towards reopening in person for all,” Moccia said, adding that she is concerned about the mental and emotional health of students and families.

She pointed out that South Whidbey COVID-19 cases have nearly doubled within the past four weeks, with Clinton moving from 10 to 17 positive cases, Freeland from 11 to 19 and Langley from 11 to 18.

The South Whidbey School District’s fully remote learning began Nov. 30 and will continue until Jan. 11.