Oak Harbor schools plan to reopen despite fears raised

Oak Harbor school leaders presented plans for bringing grades 7-12 back into class.

Despite criticism from parents, teachers and students, the Oak Harbor School Board heard Monday how school leaders plan to bring grades 7-12 back into classrooms.

The school board previously approved the decision matrix to guide the district when teenagers can return to in-person, hybrid classes.

The board left the details of reopening to the individual schools.

Younger students have already returned to hybrid in-person classes under a separate reopening plan. It was trickier to find a way to bring older students back because they switch classes each period.

Among other factors, the decision matrix said schools can reopen if less than three percent of staff test positive during a week of mandatory testing in February, the Island County case rate was below 350 cases per 100,000 population and the district follows guidance from the state Department of Health. Island County Public Health will also be required to have enough contact tracing and testing capacity, and will give the district a letter of assurance to show it met its end of the bargain.

Leaders from Oak Harbor High School, North Whidbey Middle School and the HomeConnection/Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center each listed their COVID-19 safety plans during the school board meeting Monday night.

All of the plans featured social distancing, face mask usage, frequent classroom cleaning and handwashing, and health attestations for students and staff. The plans specify which entrances can be used and what will happen if someone shows symptoms, among other day-to-day situations.

There are some differences — Oak Harbor High School students can enter the building 15 minutes before class begins, while HomeConnection students only have two minutes.

Another key difference is that some HomeConnection/Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center students will be allowed to eat lunch during class, while students at the other two schools will not; they will be given lunch to take home. The plans are online and the schools will communicate the safety measures to students and families.

Still, the plans drew criticism.

Summer Lefler, a high school science teacher, read a series of news headlines about the new virus variant, rising case counts, and outbreaks and deaths in schools across the nation to urge the board to reconsider reopening until teachers can be vaccinated.

“The writing is on the wall, but it seems like the school district is not ready to read it,” Lefler said.

Several people had concerns about if sending students to school for six hours a week would outweigh the risks of in-person classes. Students would have in-person classes for three hours in the morning before going home and finishing the day with remote learning.

Matt Wilcox, a high school math teacher, said content would need to be cut down to the “bare bones” to accommodate the new schedule. High school students have classes in two-hour blocks in distance learning, but would have one-hour blocks of in-person instruction when they return to class.

The two student board representatives, River Clark and Shaquan Gallagher, went on a tour of the high school building earlier in the day and said they were hesitant to return.

As someone who was “pretty adamant” about returning to school, Gallagher said he was not as excited about it anymore.

“I would question whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs or risks,” Gallagher said.

Both students were concerned about safety and that school would not look like how most students had imagined.

“I have very little hope in the plan that we have in place, I have very little hope in the school in terms of putting information out,” Clark said. “I’m very disappointed.”

North Whidbey Middle School Principal Bill Weinsheimer highlighted concerns about social and emotional learning and mental health as reasons to bring students back.

“We have done an amazing job in our schools so far this year to educate students best we can,” Weinsheimer said. “We also know we are losing a lot of students.”

Nate Salisbury, high school principal, said he felt his school’s plan would allow students to return safely. He said it was a “living document” and will likely change in the future as the world progresses through the COVID-19 crisis.

He also acknowledged that some teachers were hesitant to come back to school.

“We’re aware of that, and that is something that we’re working with and trying to work through,” Salisbury said. “That said, we have a good plan. We have a plan that will set us up to open safely.”

Students in grades 7-12 could return to hybrid in-person classes the week of Feb. 8.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how many hours students would receive in-person instruction. It has been updated. We regret the error.