Island districts make plans for returning to in-person learning

— Created January 20, 2021 by Kacie Jo Voeller

By Kacie Jo Voeller

          Throughout the challenges of COVID-19, a large focus has been on education and K-12 institutions. In many cases, large groups of students have participated in remote learning models for extended periods of time, and in-person opportunities were often limited to younger learners, special education students and those considered most at risk. Whidbey Island’s three school districts each have their own timelines for returning to in-person learning, but each system has emphasized the focus on safety and providing educational opportunities for students based on up-to-date guidelines from the Washington State Department of Health and other data.

For Coupeville School District, the target date for returning K-2 students who elected to attend hybrid learning is Feb. 1. Steve King, superintendent of Coupeville School District, said the district’s approach has been to prioritize the wellbeing of students.

“Our goal has been to remain positive and hopeful as we listen to all the concerns and needs of our students and families,” he said in an email. “We’re excited about the opportunity to provide our students and families with the option to safely return to school. I’m looking forward to seeing more students back in our schools.”

King said the schools will continue to offer remote learning opportunities for students and families who elect to continue learning virtually.

“We deeply care about our students and want to do what is best for them,” he said. “We understand the need to provide safe in-person schooling options along with continuing a viable remote learning program. We are working diligently to protect everyone in regards to COVID-19 while addressing the learning needs and social-emotional needs of our students.” 

          King said safety remains a top priority as the district plans tentatively to bring students back to school. The target date for a return to hybrid learning for remaining K-5 students who have opted to return to an in-person model is Feb. 22, with the hopeful dates to bring back middle-school in-person and high school in-person learning being March 8 and 15, respectively.

           “We have closely followed the safety guidelines and school reopening guidelines since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “We have made sure that we either meet or exceed all mitigation requirements as well. We proactively asked Labor & Industries along with Island County Public Health to review all safety plans and do a site visit to give us feedback on how we can ensure safety in our schools. During the fall we prioritized our youngest learners and learners served in special services for in-person instruction.” 

“Now that the guidance metrics, which are based on research and science, have changed we have decided that we will begin a phased in approach to bringing students back to in person instruction,” he continued.

Oak Harbor Public Schools returned PK-6 students to hybrid learning Jan. 11. The district approved a new reopening decision matrix for grades 7-12 at a school board meeting Jan. 11 and plans to begin to start a return for this group starting early February. 

“As long as the metrics and criteria are met, we will begin in-person instruction for our grade 7-12 students in a modified hybrid instruction format beginning Monday, Feb. 8,” the district stated in an email to families.

Students in grades seven to 12 will follow a modified hybrid in-person learning schedule with two groups (A and B) with Group A attending morning in-person classes Monday and Tuesday and Group B in-person Thursday and Friday. Both groups will continue Distance Plus each afternoon, on Wednesdays, and while the other group is in-person. 

“This has been a challenging year for all of us, but we are so thankful to return students back to campus,” the district said in an email.

Jo Moccia, superintendent of the South Whidbey School District, said the district plans to slowly start phasing more students back to a hybrid model of learning by early February, provided certain metrics are met. Currently, kindergarten students, students with special needs and students at greatest risk are taking part in on-campus instruction. Moccia said the district will continue to move slowly and consider returning upper grades after the board review Feb. 10.

“We want to get our kids back to school,” she said in a school board workshop meeting held Jan. 14. “It is in the hands of the local district as to whether or not we come back. We have plans in place, this is not a question of if, it is a question of when. When is the right time, when do we move this train forward? We are thinking we gradually start to return at the beginning of February, maybe 1-4 but not all at the same time. Maybe we do first and second and then third and fourth and start moving it forward. That is what we are talking about now.”

          Moccia said the health and wellbeing of the students is a top priority of the district. The district also will continue with mitigation strategies, including social distancing protocols, increased cleaning and continuing to require masks.

“This is really about kids and their social-emotional status, especially the younger children,” she said. “Academically, and I know that it is not ideal, but certainly academically we are meeting kids’ needs, it is just very difficult. It is difficult all around and there is no easy answer — we are in the middle of the pandemic and we are doing our best.”

          For more information and updates, visit (Coupeville School District), (Oak Harbor Public Schools), and (South Whidbey School District).