Sending students back to school classrooms has proven to be a dicey proposal, as parents and educators continually weigh the benefits of in-class learning against COVID-related health risks.
It’s a conversation taking place across the nation as the pandemic rages and, with the holiday season in full swing, threatens to grow worse.
That is exactly the scenario that has been facing the Enumclaw School District, where youngsters in kindergarten through second grade were slated to return to their school buildings Nov. 30. Two weeks later, on Dec. 14, the district had planned for third- through fifth-graders to be in classrooms, as well.
Everything changed the morning of Nov. 20, however, when the district announced it was scrapping those plans.
The news was delivered by Superintendent Shaun Carey in a message sent to district families and shared with the greater community on the district’s website.
“Three weeks ago, we communicated our K-2 students would transition to the hybrid model on November 30th. Since that time, much of the landscape has changed….again,” Carey wrote. “We have faced significant challenges as we continue to experience COVID-19 cases in our staff and our students as a result of the heightened community transmission. Given these changes and what we expect to see as a result of the upcoming holiday season, we feel this transition is better timed to take place in January.”
The new schedule calls for K-2 students to return to schools on Jan. 11 and third- through fifth-graders to follow two weeks later on Jan. 25. The district’s secondary students, attending middle school or Enumclaw High, will head back on Feb. 1.
Students will be following a hybrid model in which they attend school two full days per week, with other days devoted to remote learning. Parents fearful of health risks will have the opportunity to keep their children in a fully-remote environment.
The district’s original plan had received plenty of comment the evening of Nov. 16, during a regularly-scheduled meeting of the Enumclaw School Board. The board’s agenda typically allows time for public comment and, on the 16th, the board heard plenty.
Comments came from those on both sides of the aisle – some in favor of getting kids back into schools and others who believe it remains a dangerous proposal. Offering input were both teachers and parents.
The district’s teachers were on record as opposing the original re-opening plan.
Among those addressing the school board on the 16th was Kathy Ross, a high school math teacher and president of the Enumclaw Education Association, which counts a current membership of more than 250 and represents classroom teachers and building specialists.
She reported that a survey of EEA members had generated “pretty overwhelming” opposition to the plan, stating that about 80 percent had disagreed with the district’s position. The primarily concern, Ross said, was timing: returning students to classrooms between the Thanksgiving and winter breaks, she said, “doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Other district employees had asked for clarification regarding the health data used by the district, wondered about plans to cover for teachers who need to quarantine, and asked about mask-wearing enforcement.
Other district employees had supported the Nov. 30/Dec. 14 return-to-school plan. Comments included the willingness of the district to follow safety guidelines and the fact that some students are already on campus and have not contributed to increased infection rates.
Parents addressing the board were divided on the issue. Some told the school board that at-home students are at risk of falling behind, that the remote-learning model simply doesn’t work for everyone and not all parents are able to stay home with young children. Forcing students to stay at home, they said, ignores the social and emotional needs of young people.
Taking the opposite view were those opposed to the earlier re-opening plan. They spoke about the rising number of COVID cases throughout the county, the chance that younger students would not adequately follow safety protocols and the fact that the district has chosen to abandon the “Decision Tree” guidelines suggested by the state Department of Health.
When all had finished speaking, Board President Bryan Stanwood said the school board would be making a recommendation to district administrators. That process culminated in Friday morning’s announcement.