Bellingham Public Schools to begin school year remote, first full day Sept. 8

A Message from Superintendent Greg Baker

Dear students, staff, families and community,

After I sent a message last week, I heard from many of you, and I want to thank you for your ongoing support and encouragement. While many had opinions on what we should do as a school district, I consistently heard 1) an acknowledgement that we are in a challenging situation, 2) an appreciation for a focus on the safety of our students, staff and community and 3) trust that we will make the best decisions we can.  I thank you for that trust. We have an amazing staff, school board, students, families and community, and I believe in the core value of The Bellingham Promise that states “together we achieve more than alone.” We will get through this challenging time together. I’m quite certain I speak for all of us when I say that I can’t wait for the day when we are reflecting back and telling stories of how we made it through the great pandemic!

With that, I’d like to share an update on our planning for this upcoming school year. I met with the Whatcom County Health Department yesterday, and they shared data that suggests it is not safe to open schools right now and that we should focus on remote learning.  I’ve also been in communication this week with our school board, our district leadership team and our Reopening Schools Advisory Committee. The answer to whether we can bring students back into our buildings next month is clear to me – we must wait. The following is a more detailed explanation of our current thinking. Please know that conditions will continue to change and best practices will continue to emerge around the country and the world. Please continue to give grace as we try out new approaches and learn, adjust and improve.  Thank you all and be safe.

Reconnect Plan

Bellingham Public Schools will begin the 2020-21 school year with students participating in all classes from home, using an improved, robust and flexible online and at-home learning model.  This matches the Whatcom County Health Department’s recommendation that school districts prepare for remote learning when they reopen in September. We have been planning a staged, careful process for students to return to classes at their school.

We are also delaying the first day of school for students to Tuesday, Sept. 8. The entire week of Aug. 31 will be used for professional development for staff; these additional days will also be used to engage and provide support for students and families. We will be moving staff learning Fridays (also known as “purple Fridays”) from September, October and March to front load and help prepare staff, students and families for remote learning on Sept. 8. The scheduled last day of school, June 18, 2021, will remain the same. This calendar revision gives students and families a chance to access devices, materials, meet teachers and get familiar with online tools and schedules. See our tentative 2020-21 calendar.

We created a five-stage model that explains how we flexibly move between 100% at-home learning to 100% in-person school. We believe this model will meet the needs of the majority of our students and families. Our goal is to ensure that all students K-12 have the technology they need for school and access to Wi-Fi from home.

the five stages in a color graphic circles

We plan to start the school year in stage 1 of our model, with students participating in remote, at-home learning daily, which will include both real-time, live lessons mixed with independent, supported learning.  Schools are closed for access to all students and most staff. We hope to transition into stage 2 soon to allow some in-person learning for identified students based on predetermined criteria, and only if the safety of the students and adults can be maintained. In stage 2, some staff may be able to be on-site for the purpose of planning and delivering online instruction.

Our virtual classroom strategies and tools for the 2020-21 school year will look different than what was offered this spring. We thank you for your grace this spring and are proud of the work our staff did to create a remote learning system nearly from the ground up. We also heard our staff, families and students loud and clear that our remote learning model needed to include more real-time interaction, a more robust curriculum, and scheduled classes with accountability for attendance. As The Bellingham Promise states, every child can learn at high levels, and it’s imperative that our online experiences reflect this core value. Over the summer, staff have been working hard to develop professional learning opportunities for our teachers to better prepare them to teach in an online environment. Remote learning will include scheduled live lessons taught via teleconferencing software with other tools to support independent learning at home.

Please see sample schedules for stages 1 and 2 for remote learning. More details to come, but we know it is vital that we provide 1) professional development and support for staff and 2) learning opportunities and tools for families (or for whomever may be supporting students at home) in the weeks to come. Staff will be receiving more information soon from human resources and the Department of Teaching and Learning.

Our Reconnect Plan will keep students connected as much as possible to their neighborhood/enrolled schools. The advantage is if/when we go back to school in person, students will be connected with their classroom community.

For those interested in alternative learning models, we can offer two options: our Family Partnership Program (for grades K-8), where students take classes with teachers who partner with learning that is designed at home, or a fully online option, which will remain online all year even if our schools are able to open part or full-time and we can safely bring children and staff back into our buildings. More details of this option will be shared in the coming weeks. If you are interested in one of these alternatives, please check the appropriate box and fill out this form. If your family chooses these alternative options for one or more of your children, we will ask you make a commitment for the full first semester, so we can plan ahead for adequate staffing.

Our decision to start school fully online at stage 1 is based on several factors including:

  • The rate of cases and deaths related to coronavirus in our county and state continues to rise.
  • Guidance from a number of sources and organizations, including the Whatcom County Health Department’s recommendation for remote K-12 learning for fall 2020 and a recent announcement from Gov. Jay Inslee. As the science of COVID-19 continues to evolve, and medical science’s understanding of the impact of young people on the possible community transmission rates become better known, we have a responsibility to better understand how the health and behaviors of our students and staff are interrelated with the well-being of the broader community.
  • With any in-person model, there are challenges in the logistics of staff and student cohorts to be in and out of school based on exposure to the virus and outbreaks. This will create significant disruptions and challenges with predictability. Students and staff perform most effectively with a stable, consistent instructional plan where expectations for attendance and learning are implemented. This will help families in their planning as well.
  • Giving families, students, staff and community partners time to prepare and plan. Committing to this approach allows us to focus district resources and energy on refining our at-home model. Additional time to plan allows us to concentrate on specifically identified students with unique needs, including our youngest learners and students who receive special education services.
  • Mixed responses from stakeholders, including our labor leaders, work teams, advisory committees, families and students and staff from the feedback we collected in June about readiness and willingness to be in person. The task of reopening schools is compounded with a significant number of high-risk staff in critical positions.

Please see our Bellingham Public Schools learning model stages for more information about the conditions of each stage and how and when we would move from one to the next. We will provide additional updates and details on the structure, schedule and expectations of our at-home online learning model as we move forward. We expect to share more information soon about a number of other important topics, including athletics and activities, meals for students and child care.

We know you have many questions, and we will do our best to provide more information in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if your request, comment or question is timely, please fill out this form and a staff member will respond soon.

Thank you for your support during these challenging times and circumstances.

Greg Baker