Complexities of bringing students and staff back into schools

A Message from Superintendent Greg Baker

Dear students, staff, families and community members,

I will give you fair warning that this is a longer message, but we want to share 1) the importance of bringing students and staff back into schools, 2) the complexities of doing so and 3) our current thinking for stages 2 and 3 in our Reconnect Plan. Thanks for reading!

It is Wednesday evening and I sit here reflecting on our current situation and our possible next steps with regards to bringing our students and staff back to our buildings. I am staying as up-to-date as possible with news from around the state, country and globe with regards to the pandemic and what that means for schools. So many questions persist. Is it time to bring folks back? If so, who? How soon? How long per day? This puzzle is the biggest one we have faced, well, at least since this summer when we were faced with how to bring back all students and staff remotely!

I want to celebrate that our start, given the challenging context, has been very good. As I connect with colleagues around the country, I am grateful for what we have here in Bellingham that has allowed us to be successful given challenging circumstances. This includes a community that values and supports public education. Our local levies, passed by our voters, have allowed us to provide robust technology for students and staff, educational technology coaches in each school and professional development for staff.  And dedicated parents and staff working so hard collaboratively to support the teaching and learning of our children.

We are in our third week of remote learning. Everyone is committed to making it work as well as possible. In normal times, any time we make a significant change—say, a new curriculum adoption or a change in bell schedules—we encourage folks to give it time, to be patient, to learn, to adapt, to improve and to not rush the process. But these are not normal times. While many students, staff and families are doing ok, and in some cases, even thriving with remote learning, we know many are struggling. I get emails daily from families who are really challenged by remote learning. Some have had to decide between keeping a job or supporting a child at home. Some do not have reliable Wi-Fi no matter what we do to support them.

Across our state, over 95% of students started with remote learning. Most districts are now trying to figure out the next step of bringing back staff and students into schools. Some districts are publishing dates of when different groups of students will return. The benefit of this is it lets folks know what to expect and when.  The challenge though is the many variables that may prevent those plans to proceed; many districts have put out dates, only then to have to pull them back.  I am reluctant to share dates of when every student will come back, because I am not confident we can predict the future well enough.

Locally, our health department has recommended that districts start remotely and move forward cautiously. We were advised to wait to see if there was a spike in COVID cases after Labor Day, similar to past holidays, including Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Those numbers are coming in, and it looks like there has been an increase in cases.

However, the numbers and guidance suggest we should still work to bring back at least some teachers and students, which aligns with Stage 2 of our Reconnect Plan. We plan to focus on students struggling most with remote learning which may include those who do not have strong Wi-Fi access, despite our best efforts, and some students who receive Special Education services. We are also thinking about students experiencing homelessness and those whose primary language is one other than English. The key challenge is how to best identify our highest need students out of nearly 12,000 students and bring them back with all the new health requirements and minimize risks to the greatest degree possible.

You may hear of districts that are starting with students only in self-contained programs, such as specific special education programs, preschool or kindergarten. Other districts, particularly those who are very small, might be considering bringing back everyone all at once. No one truly knows the right answer, and every community has its own context for decisions.

If you’re following the news, you know that as a nation, we just hit 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. We had over 50,000 new cases just Monday. There is worry that challenges lie just ahead, including:

  • Colder temperatures will cause more people to be indoors and having closer proximity to each other;
  • A second wave of illness; historically, the second wave in October during the 1918 pandemic was worse than the first spike;
  • Students returning to universities and colleges;
  • The rapid approach of flu season.

If you are still reading this, you probably have a better sense of how complex all this is. And, despite the complexities, I always strive to be as clear and transparent as possible. While we are working hard to bring students and staff back into our buildings, it is not a simple flip of a switch. I hope my thoughts above help provide some context.

Where do we go from here?

  • We will continue working with our staff and labor leaders on how to transition our staff from working from home to schools prior to bringing students back. This allows us to learn and practice our protocols to reduce risks and get more people comfortable working on site during remote learning.
  • During our preparation for Stage 2 of our Reconnect Plan, we will continue to refine remote learning and ensure it works as well as possible.
  • Next, we are continuing to identify which students are struggling the most with remote learning. Our principals and other staff are going student-by-student to identify those to bring back soonest. This is challenging, and we recognize that most of our students would benefit from being back in our schools.
  • We also are preparing for Stage 3, which includes our youngest learners, from preschool to kindergarten and first grade.

To sum up: In the weeks to come, my expectation is that we will begin bringing back students in small numbers, using the safety protocols we have developed and have been using successfully within child care programs. Bringing back students requires many conversations, including our parents, staff, labor partners, health department, principals, transportation and food services, to name just a few. I expect new guidelines will be coming out in the coming days from the governor, and the state Department of Health. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), the organization that coordinates high school athletics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other state and federal organizations also continue to modify their guidelines. We need to remain nimble and adaptive and I know, for many, this is frustrating. We all want clarity and exact metrics, but unfortunately, that is not the reality we have been handed.

In closing, thank you all for the incredibly challenging work you are doing, whether a student, staff member or parent/guardian. This pandemic is a challenge. But as I have said before, we will get through it. We will learn and come out of this better than before. And while it may be hard to see this as possibly the greatest and most joyful year ever…I believe it can be.

Greg Baker