Amid pandemic, Oak Harbor Public Schools looks forward

— Created December 16, 2020 by Kacie Jo Voeller

By Kacie Jo Voeller

There have been no COVID-19 cases among students and staff following Oak Harbor Public Schools’ hybrid learning model, but the district has temporarily moved to a distance learning model due to rising case rates in Island County.

In a special board meeting held Dec. 9, OHPS officials, employees, and parents came together for a virtual discussion of the district’s plans regarding managing the impact of COVID-19. Concerns ranging from staff and student safety, engagement, mental health and more were discussed as the board looked at adjusting the current plans for determining whether students will be learning remotely or in a hybrid model.

Based on current data, OHPS moved to the Distance Plus model for this week, and students will return to Distance Learning Only Jan. 4-8. As of press time, plans for grades seven through 12 for Jan. 11 and beyond are still to be determined. An updated reopening decision matrix was adopted by the board for pre-kindergarten through sixth grade during the regular board meeting Monday, with the hope being to return the age group to Hybrid Rotation Jan. 11, provided metrics are met. Conor Laffey, communication officer for OHPS, said the goal remains to bring students back to school as soon as is safely possible.

“We have a plan that we created in August, but we have also learned that all of our mitigation efforts – wearing masks, sanitizing, social distancing, separating desks so they are six feet apart – are working,” he said. “We have had zero cases of COVID-19 in our schools that were hybrid. The only two student cases were in our middle school, which is only bringing in small groups to campus, like ELL (English Language Learners), special programs, or students who need access to our internet cafes.”

Laffey said the board has been continually monitoring cases in the community and numbers from Island County Public Health to determine what age groups will be participating in different learning models, from Distance Plus to Hybrid Rotation. The review day for the current plan used to determine which groups were in each learning model was Dec. 8, and the board has adjusted the prekindergarten through sixth grade matrix and is currently considering updates for the metrics to determine the return to school for seventh to twelfth grade students.

“We were the largest district in western Washington to start with pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade hybrid (learning),” he said. “The plan that we had put forth, we have actually followed that plan.” 

Even in the midst of navigating the pandemic, the district has been considering long-range plans. Laffey said the district was recently granted a nearly $1 million growth grant from the Department of Defense (DoD) through the Office of Economic Adjustment to support pre-design and planning for school buildings. 

“This is huge because we have never had this before,” he said. “We are going to be able to do more with this grant than in the past.  All the studies conducted allow us to determine accurate costs for the construction of these school buildings before we go to taxpayers and ask them to vote on a bond.” 

            Laffey said the district is considering the replacement of five school buildings and a transportation center, which are eligible for different levels of matched funding. Crescent Harbor Elementary and the HomeConnection/Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center are eligible for an 80 percent match from the DoD’s Office of Economic Adjustment. A 20 percent state match is available to Oak Harbor Elementary and Oak Harbor Intermediate, while the transportation center has eligibility for a 70 percent state match based on its cooperative work servicing vehicles from Coupeville School District. While Olympic View Elementary is not qualified for matched funds, building a new school will help with spacing concerns in the district.

            “The DoD has taken an active interest in our community,” Laffey said. “In the past decade, NAS Whidbey Island has grown by more than 2,000 personnel, and since the base resides entirely within the boundaries of Oak Harbor Public Schools, the DoD has been a great partner as we look to build new schools. The federal match and the growth grant allow our district to create a thorough and comprehensive application for these projects and to determine an accurate funding proposal needed to complete the projects.”

 Laffey said in order for matching dollars to be made available, local bonds must be approved by voters.

“Matching dollars are only available to the school district and community if a bond for the portion for the local match is passed,” he said. “The district is currently paying off a bond for Oak Harbor High School in 2022 (originally passed in 2006).  Based on the information and studies conducted in the Ed Specs process, the district may ask voters to pass a bond in 2022 to fund these six projects.”

Laffey said the goal is to keep tax rates the same or similar to what they were before when it comes to funding school buildings and raising the necessary funds beyond the state and federal matching.  

“We are very conscious of Oak Harbor taxpayers,” he said

            Laffey said in order to plan and complete the new buildings several items, including approval for a bond in 2022 and support for replacing an expiring levy in February 2021, must happen.

“I am very excited about the possibility, but at the same time there is a lot of work that needs to be completed before then,” he said.

            For more information on OHPS and updates, visit