First day for MVSD may be delayed
Everyone involved with school — teachers, administrators, students and parents — agrees that they face an impossible and unprecedented choice as the new academic year looms in just a couple of weeks.
They have good reason to feel overwhelmed and unsettled. The Methow Valley School District is one of just a small number of districts in the state proposing some form of in-person instruction, according to Methow Valley School District Supt. Tom Venable.
Even that option — which the district is still committed to offering — may be snatched away if the district doesn’t get an exemption from Okanogan County Public Health that allows it to offer in-person instruction despite COVID-19 rates in the county far exceeding the recommended threshold.
Not only is in-person education up in the air, but even the first day of school — initially set for Monday, Aug. 31 — may change.
District officials are considering moving three to five scheduled professional-development days to before the school year, meaning school would start on Thursday, Sept. 3, or Tuesday, Sept. 8 (after Labor Day). The school board will act on any recommendations at its meeting on Wednesday (Aug. 25), Venable said.
In the most recent two weeks, the county had 344 new confirmed COVID cases per 100,000 population. The state Department of Health wants that number to be below 75 for in-person schooling.
Health officers for Okanogan, Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Kittitas counties released their guidance for re-opening classroom instruction on Aug. 7. “Due to the increase in COVID-19 cases, the Health Officers agree that, until the COVID incidence rate decreases, in-person instruction is not safe or recommended in North Central Washington,” they said.
But the Methow is “an outlier,” Venable said at a virtual Q&A on Thursday (Aug. 13). While disease rates in the county have skyrocketed in the past month, cases in the Methow remain consistently low — just 11 from Carlton to Winthrop since March, with only one active case at the moment, Venable said.
Venable talked with Okanogan County Health Officer John McCarthy after the Q&A, he said in an interview this week. Public Health is very interested in supporting students’ safe return to school in a way that balances the interests and needs of the community and its overall health, Venable said.
To decide whether it’s safe for kids to go to an actual classroom with real teachers and classmates, the district and Public Health will monitor results of free COVID testing in Winthrop this past weekend — where 375 people got tested — and of another round of testing in the Methow within the week, Venable said.
If the number of infections exceeds the threshold (approximately seven infections in the school district), in-person instruction can still begin later in the fall, Venable said.
In the online Q&A, Venable pointed to the valley’s geographic isolation. He cited an emerging body of research that suggests elementary schools in rural areas with few cases should consider re-opening, calling it “not just a scientific question, but also an emotional one and a moral one.”
The district has offered three options — a hybrid model where two groups of students would alternate, attending school two days a week and doing schoolwork remotely the other three days; 100% remote learning; and, for kindergarten through eighth grade, homeschooling supported by a teacher through the district’s REACH program.
Liberty Bell High School registration will be from Tuesday (Aug. 25) to Thursday (Aug. 27), in person, outdoors on the school campus. Students can also register online or in person after Aug. 27. Call Counselor Erika Spellman or Principal Crosby Carpenter at 996-2215 for more information.
New elementary students should contact the school at 996-2186 to register.
The Return to Learn Q&A can be watched on the school district’s website at http://www.methow.org.
About three-quarters of families who responded to a school survey (encompassing about 500 of the student body of 700) want some form of in-person instruction, Venable said this week. Three-quarters of staff members have also indicated they’re comfortable with some in-person instruction. Instructors who have a greater health risk or a household member at risk will be accommodated with a completely remote assignment, he said.
If school does open, health protocols will be intense — parents will have to fill out an online health report every day about symptoms like cough, headache and temperature. Anyone who doesn’t have internet access or who forgets will be checked at school. And anyone with a cough or runny nose will not be allowed to attend until a negative COVID test or 14 days of quarantine, school nurse Adriana Vanbianchi said at the Q&A.
All students and staff will be required to wear a mask and stay 6 feet apart. As many activities as possible will be conducted outdoors, including lunch. The school would be cleaned every Wednesday, between the two groups of students who attend in person.
Other guidelines exist for when to quarantine a single class and when an entire building has to be shut down for two weeks, Vanbianchi said.
At the Q&A, Venable, Vanbianchi, the three principals, and other district staff answered previously submitted questions from parents and families about everything from advanced-placement classes to extracurricular activities to school buses and meals (they will be provided). Some asked what would happen if schools were forced to close for the term. They also answered questions raised in the chat box during the virtual Zoom meeting, attended by about 150 people.
Students in the hybrid option will have assignments they do on their own, but they will be held to a stricter schedule for due dates. Students in the entirely remote option will work more at their own pace. They can expect check-ins with Methow Valley teachers, Liberty Bell High School Principal Crosby Carpenter said.
The REACH program is a school/family partnership where the family serves as the primary teacher, REACH K-8 Home School Coordinator Katharine Bill said.
Although staff members were upbeat about their commitment to offering flexibility, all options contain undeniable hurdles, including how to deal with limited bandwidth when several kids in a household are all doing schoolwork at once.
Venable offered a sober response to the scariest question of all: Does the district have a plan to deal with mental-health repercussions if a student or teacher dies from COVID? Everyone assumes risks every day, Venable said at the Q&A. “I don’t have a soft, flowery message in response to that question. We know that that is a reality. That’s why we’re trying to create options for our families,” he said.