Oak Harbor School Board votes to change reopening plan

School leaders pressed to bring students back inside buildings when classes resume in January.

After a four-hour meeting Wednesday night that included almost an hour of public comment in which people were pleading to keep school doors open for in-person classes, Oak Harbor school board voted to change the district’s pandemic-related reopening plan.

After the unanimous vote, school board members asked Superintendent Lance Gibbon to come back to them with a plan to bring Pre-K through sixth grade students back with hybrid classes after winter break ends in January, as well as a plan for older grades to transition to hybrid classes possibly in early February.

School Board President John Diamond acknowledged that evidence on both sides of the debate existed, but he supported bringing kids back to the school buildings.

”There’s not a perfect answer for this in its entirety, but there is a decision to be made,” he said. “I too, like the rest of the board, support getting as many kids back in to seeing their teachers, back in the buildings and back to what they know is comfortable so that they can learn.”

The school district advised families last month that students will likely return to distance learning as the number of new coronavirus cases on Whidbey Island and the nation as a whole continues to climb. Under its soon-to-be former reopening plan, school leaders said students would move backward in its phased reopening plan if cases grew beyond 60 per 100,000 population in the county. Pre-K through sixth grade students had been in hybrid rotation classes since Oct. 12 because the district reached phase three of its original plan.

Hybrid classes are a combination of in-person and online learning on different days of the week. Families can also choose to have solely distance learning.

Island County had a rate of 172 per 100,000 newly diagnosed cases over two weeks as of Dec. 9, according to state department of health data. The county had 762 cases as of Dec. 9. It is an increase of 62 cases since Dec. 4, according to county data. Oak Harbor bears the brunt of the total with 392 positive cases.

The school district recently learned of another student who tested positive at North Whidbey Middle School, district spokesperson Conor Laffey said in an email.

“The student’s test was confirmed positive on Saturday, Dec 5, and school administrators promptly notified appropriate parents and staff from the small group (currently not offering hybrid at NWMS),” Laffey wrote. “As a result, one staff member is quarantining due to close contact with the student.”

A student from North Whidbey Middle School who tested positive in October is the only other positive case the district knows about, Laffey added.

Wednesday, numerous parents and staff asked the school board to consider a plan that would keep at least hybrid classes open for younger grades when school resumes in January after winter break. Other parents encouraged school officials to find a way to bring back grades 7-12, which is the last group to return to school under the district’s current plan. Some people suggested doing a morning/afternoon class schedule to try to get more students back to in-person classes or lightening the online work load so students aren’t overwhelmed.

Almost all highlighted the strain on students’ mental health.

“In the work I do, I’m aware of the mental health and social impacts on the youth and the children, and I’ve witnessed my own kids struggle with the online learning,” said mental health therapist and parent of five, Jeff Hamm.

Jacki Jacukowicz read a letter written by her high school senior son who asked administrators to allow kids back to school if students felt safe themselves. She mentioned that on the day her son’s cap and gown were ordered, his lack of enthusiasm made her emotional.

“I cried for him that evening, and I just hope you guys do too,” Jacukowicz said.

Jodee Snyder, mom to two students in middle and high school, said she felt she spoke for multiple parents frustrated with distance learning.

“There are gobs of parents behind me that feel they won’t be heard or that their opinion doesn’t matter,” Snyder said.

“I’m furious my kids are being deprived of a quality education,” she said, adding that online learning has brought down their grades and been frustrating. She said her son doesn’t want to go to college anymore. She compared Oak Harbor to her friends’ school districts in other states that were open.

A few teachers who spoke were in the minority. They cautioned that bringing students back during a time of increased transmission could be dangerous for the health of students and teachers. They also noted that when teachers said they were coming back to teach, they agreed to the original plan. Now that case numbers have grown beyond the initial parameters, they asked for board members to protect them.

Mallory Harman teaches at Oak Harbor Intermediate School and asked to consider how teachers feel about reopening the schools.

“If I knew this was going to be changed, I wouldn’t have gone hybrid,” Harman said.

April Peterson teaches science at Oak Harbor High School. She asked for the district to have different plans for elementary and secondary grade levels, warning that secondary schools’ virus transmission will more closely reflect community spread than younger grades.

“Whatever happens in the community will happen here in Oak Harbor High School,” Peterson said. “What I am asking you to do today is to think about secondary schools differently.”

Ellen Ludwig teaches at Oak Harbor Intermediate and said she was also cautious of in-person learning.

“I love teaching, but I also don’t want to die because of it,” she said. “I realize that you have a real difficult decision to make, and I just want to make sure we’re all here next year, talking about the winter holidays.”

Gibbon also weighed in. He said the district has also offered weekly testing to its staff, personal protective equipment and other mitigation efforts and the administration would look for ways to improve.

He acknowledged that both staff and families have sacrificed a lot already, but that the toll on the students has been great. Some students have considered taking their own lives, he said, and that is why their connection to schools is important.

“Kids can make up the learning loss. It’s the social and emotional toll that it’s taking on them, the developmental toll from being away from peers” that will have long-term effects, he said.

Gibbon agreed that students should come back to hybrid classes in January. Older grades do need a different set of metrics, he added. Because older students change classes more often, it’s harder to limit their close contacts.

After hearing from the public and leaders from elementary, middle and high school levels, the school board voted unanimously to change the reopening plan. Members did not put forward a replacement plan yet, but asked the superintendent to come back to them with an option for in-person classes and more mitigation measures.

The school board will have its next regular board meeting on Monday, Dec. 14.

This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Jacki Jacukowicz’s name, and that she became emotional when her son’s cap and gown was ordered.