Teachers voice concerns over plan to reopen schools

The Oak Harbor School Board approved a modified plan for Pre-K through sixth grade classes.

Several Oak Harbor High School teachers criticized the school board during a regular board meeting Monday night for its decision last week to change the reopening plan in order to keep students inside school buildings.

Nonetheless, the Oak Harbor School Board approved a modified plan for the district’s Pre-K through sixth-grade students, which features district-wide COVID-19 testing.

The three teachers who spoke during the public comment period criticized the board for last week’s decision to change its reopening plan metrics so that students could continue to be in hybrid rotation in-person classes even as coronavirus cases increase in the community.

Under the hybrid rotation model, half of the students go to in-person classes for two days a week while the other half does distance learning from home. After a day of deep cleaning on Wednesday, the groups rotate learning environments.

The school district has had pre-K through sixth-grade students in hybrid rotation since Oct. 12.

Summer Lefler, a high school science teacher and mother of two elementary school students, said the school board members themselves were not qualified to decide how to reopen and were swayed by a group of community members asking for school doors to open. She advocated the district follow the original reopening metrics, which would have seen students go back to distance learning as local COVID-19 cases continue to climb.

“The five people in charge in making this decision include a pilot, a retired teacher, a librarian, a Realtor and an IT specialist. I think we can all agree that these are not the qualifications one might look for when putting together a committee in charge of making a decision about returning to school amidst a global pandemic,” she continued, urging them to consider data from the state Department of Health and disease experts.

“To say that you would know better than the experts is simply irresponsible, and it makes me question your ability to keep my family safe,” Lefler said.

Rebecca Rhodes, a high school special education teacher, said that two immediate family members had gotten sick with COVID-19 for a week and a month, respectively. She shared that a 20-year-old man in her extended family became so ill with COVID-19 that he was hospitalized and had no family contact “until they realized he was not going to make it.”

Although she agreed that student mental health is a concern, she said that their health and safety, along with that of the staff and community, was the No. 1 priority.

“What will it do to the mental health of our students if they lose a family member to COVID?” Rhodes asked.

Jonathan Frostad, a longtime high school science teacher, urged the board to reconsider its proposed threshold of 5 percent of staff becoming ill before sending students home.

“If you do this now, then the last eight months of suffering will have all been for nothing,” he said. “All of the sacrifices that we made — wisely, up until this to this point — will have been for nothing if we blow it when we’re this close to the finish line.”

In the school district’s proposed modifications, if more than 5 percent of district-wide staff test positive for COVID-19 during Jan. 4-8, then the district will delay reopening by two weeks and retest staff. If less than 5 percent of staff test positive, then pre-K through sixth-grade students will begin hybrid rotation on Jan 11.

The board members had asked in the previous meeting for a narrower way of measuring viral spread by looking at the school district numbers, rather than basing reopening decisions on Island County numbers at large.

The school district has already offered testing to its staff on a voluntary basis, but testing will be mandatory for all staff Jan. 4-8. After that, weekly testing is optional and will be conducted in batches. Staff with COVID-19 symptoms will be offered individual testing instead as a new mitigation measure.

“The benefit here is that we’ll get results back sooner for those that are tested individually,” Superintendent Lance Gibbon explained, adding that it would be available the next day.

Continued mitigation measures included protocols for responding to outbreaks.

If there is an outbreak in class where two or more people test positive and are linked to a single classroom, the class will move to distance learning for two weeks before returning to hybrid rotation. If there are more than two outbreaks in a school, then the school will go to distance learning for two weeks and then return to hybrid rotation.

If the number of staff in quarantine, or absent from school because they are sick, is at a level making it impossible to run the school safely, then the school will go back to distance learning until there are enough staff members to reopen.

Families can still choose from several options to do distance-only learning. Other mitigation measures focus on things families and staff can do before coming back to school.

Staff will receive an updated version of a daily health attestation. Families will be required to sign a global health attestation in which they will agree to do health screenings for their kids before they return to school. Daily temperature checks and visual screening will continue at school.

The district will encourage families to enroll in the state COVID-19 exposure notification on smartphones, called WA Notify. The district will also “strongly encourage” families and staff to follow the state’s travel advisory.

The board did not completely agree with the proposed modifications, taking issue with the 5 percent staff positivity threshold. Instead, board members lowered it to 3 percent and the vote was unanimous to adopt the modified plan.

A reopening plan for grades 7-12 is forthcoming because older grades are more reflective of community spread, Gibbon said.

“It would be useful to have some more specific metrics since that particular student population is more mobile in the community, more connected in the community, and so more likely to reflect the community rates,” he said.

There were 802 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Island County as of Monday, Dec. 14, according to Island County Public Health. It is an increase of 12 since last Friday. Oak Harbor accounted for 411 cases.