School’s back in session but learning will be from a distance

Pandemic is forcing all Snohomish County public schools to begin the year with remote learning

DARRINGTON — Students will trickle onto the campus of Darrington Elementary Tuesday to mark the start of a new school year.

But they won’t be there too long.

And they won’t be in a classroom.

Rather, all around campus, tables are getting set up outdoors for students, and their parents, to meet with their teachers for the coming year. Everyone will be masked and socially distant as they confer about challenges and opportunities of learning remotely, which Snohomish County’s public schools are all doing due to the continued presence of coronavirus.

The conferences taking place this first week are aimed to establish relationships ahead of what could be months of instruction conducted at a distance.

“It’s different, obviously,” said Superintendent Buck Marsh. “But what is the same is our staff is really excited about seeing students. Everybody is really excited to be back.”

Arlington School District also kicks off the new year Tuesday. Many teachers will be in their classrooms holding similar-styled meetings via Zoom. Again, the goal is to create a classroom community and share with students and their parents what to expect. That didn’t happen in March when the pandemic’s arrival spurred Gov. Jay Inslee to order closure of school campuses.

“What happened in the spring is we were thrown into the deep end of the pool so to speak,” said Arlington spokesman Gary Sabol. There’s been more planning and there will be more uniformity when school starts, he said.

Granite Falls, Mukilteo, Lake Stevens and Northshore will get under way Wednesday with nine other districts set to begin after Labor Day.

The pandemic isn’t just changing how education is delivered. It is also forcing school districts to shed employees whose jobs are on hold until students return to campuses on a regular basis.

On Monday, the Lake Stevens School District Board furloughed 89 bus drivers and 55 food service employees for at least two months, a decision described as difficult and painful by several members.

On Wednesday, the Marysville School Board will furlough 44 people, including bus drivers, as well as a warehouse worker, athletics associate, mechanic, maintenance technician, attendance and discipline associate and Native American family engagement specialist.

“It is a tough time. It hurts,” said Superintendent Jason Thompson. “As soon as we start bringing students back we’ll need them.”

Lakewood has furloughed 55 people including para-educators, bus drivers. custodians and other transportation department employees. Other districts have or will go the furlough route which allows employees to keep their health benefits while receiving unemployment.

“This was an incredibly difficult and emotional process,” Lakewood Superintendent Scott Peacock said in an email. “Our classified staff play vital roles in our programs and in support of our kids. We look forward to the day when we are once again fully staffed with our students onsite.”

Snohomish School District is looking at furloughs, reduction in hours and potentially layoffs.

“It is important to note that we cannot operate like we did last spring,” Superintendent Kent Kultgen wrote employees Aug. 21. “When schools closed in March the state provided exceptions to our finance rules that allowed us to maintain our workforce. For this coming school year, the state did not extend those exceptions.”

Last month, the Edmonds School District laid off 175 bus drivers.

”Funding for transportation is based on student ridership. When ridership falls, funding falls. And unfortunately until we can transport students again, funding to pay drivers is not an option,” the district said in a statement.

Last week the school district and its teachers’ union resolved differences on the amount of unassigned time classroom instructors will have each day for preparing lessons and contacting students and families.

Leaders of the two sides reached agreement on a memorandum of understanding Aug. 27 following several hours of mediation.

“Teachers will have a significant increase in their daily planning time so that they can prepare lessons and work to meet the needs of students and families,” said Andi Nofziger-Meadows, president of the Edmonds Education Association.

The final language, which was still getting ironed out Monday, assures time for live instruction with a full class as well as with small groups of students. There will also be blocks during each day for teachers to follow up with individual students and their families, she said.

Each school district has crafted a reopening plan diagramming how their students will spend their school day. These contain schedules detailing when learning will occur online through video conference versus independent assignments. How grades will be given and attendance taken are in the plans.

Plans outline how students with special needs and learning challenges can be provided in-person instruction early on. And each blueprint envisions offering students a blend of online learning and classroom instruction — only when the number of cases of coronavirus drops.

“We want to be in person as soon as possible,” said Josh Middleton, Granite Falls superintendent. “This is a national health crisis. This is not going to be a normal start. Things are not going to perfect. We need to be very flexible.”

No one wants move to the hybrid system and then, because of the virus, return to all remote learning.

“Having to do that yo-yo is probably on everyone’s mind,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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