Oak Harbor to bring back students four days a week

The school board voted Thursday to change their reopening plan again so that grades 5-12 will have four full days per week of in-person instruction by the end of April.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement last month that K-12 schools can cut social distance requirements in half gives school districts the option of getting closer to normal, and while Oak Harbor will be adjusting to the new guidance soon, it is unknown when that will happen at Whidbey’s other two school districts.

Schools were able to immediately switch to the 3-foot COVID-19 social distancing requirement after Inslee’s announcement March 25, but were not required to.

Students will need to stay 6 feet apart during lunch and some other situations.

However, Inslee said no schools should be using the 6-foot requirement in the summer and fall.

The governor’s announcement came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced social distancing guidelines for schools by the same amount.

It also came on the heels of Inslee’s emergency proclamation for all school districts to offer at least 30 percent in-person instructional time by April 19.

The Oak Harbor School Board unanimously voted on Thursday, April 1 to change their reopening plan again so that grades 5-12 will have four full days per week of in-person instruction by the end of April. Wednesday will stay a distance learning day for most students.

School administrators had previously devised a plan for grades 7-12 to move to a schedule of two full days of in-person instruction beginning April 19 per Inslee’s first order.

The social distancing requirement reduction caught them by surprise, Superintendent Lance Gibbon said during Thursday’s meeting.

Thursday’s vote came after debate over the mental health impact on students being kept home versus the toll on staff over changing schedules yet again.

The district is also understaffed among paraeducation, transportation, food service and substitute teaching positions, and faces spacing challenges as well.

There was also concern about continuing support for distance learning-only students, which make up a reported 20 percent of the school population.

The district already planned for students in grades K-4 to return to four full days in April, and the Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center was also planning to return to a normal schedule before Inslee announced the change, District Communications Officer Conor Laffey said in an email.

“There is certainly some anxiety about how this will all come together, but the bottom line goal is for us to provide as much in-person learning for our students as soon as we can,” Gibbon said. “And we understand there are going to be some challenges along the way.”

School officials in Coupeville and South Whidbey, however, are more hesitant about making changes right away.

Coupeville School District Superintendent Steve King sent an email to families the day after the governor’s announcement that said it is unlikely there will be changes to the current plan for elementary students or to the plan to bring older students back on April 12.

He also said the Central Whidbey school district is short-staffed similar to Oak Harbor.

“If we were to make any further changes to our plans it would require us to hire additional staff, which is typically a multiple-week process,” he said, adding that any potential changes wouldn’t come until at least May.

He said any changes would likely affect the school district’s ability to continue supporting distance learning, which the state requires schools to keep available, and could impact high school graduation.

Administrators have already built the class schedule for the year, and King said the school district does “not have the flexibility to make major modifications to student schedules at this point in the school year.”

South Whidbey School District Superintendent Dr. Jo Moccia emailed families soon after Inslee’s announcement that nothing would change, at least not until mid-April.

“Our current District COVID-19 Safety Plan is built on a six-foot social distancing model which will continue at this time,” Moccia wrote in an email.

She added that the school district will use the relaxed social distancing guidance in the fall. She explained that school district administrators would review the new guidance, talk with teachers and staff and discuss it publicly at the April 14 school board workshop, but that it was unclear if there would be any changes.

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