WENATCHEE — Most Wenatchee students will start school Aug. 26 without being in the same room as their teacher, but they will have instruction, structure, expectations and support.
Superintendent Paul Gordon provided that assurance Wednesday night to school board members who approved his proposed two-stage model to the start of the school year. The decision ended a two-hour meeting that included presentations by health officials on the state of the pandemic locally and comments and concerns by parents and teachers.
Gordon also noted the all-online model is temporary.
“We already have stage two planned,” he said, which will switch to a hybrid model, offering in-class instruction at first to the youngest and most at-risk students and moving up from there. “We’re not putting a hard date on it, but we will work with local health officials who are super-focused on Chelan and Douglas counties. Once we have an acceptable rate (on the spread of COVID-19), we will make the move.”
The driver, he said, is the number of cases being reported, a rate currently about nine times higher than what health officials believe is an acceptable level to be considered under control.
“This is a virus, a health issue,” Gordon told board members. “Prior to the last 15 days, we were headed down a different path, toward face-to-face instruction with a hybrid model. We made a significant shift. My recommendation tonight is to go online starting Aug. 26, for the safety and wellness of students and staff.”
Board members said they understand the need for the change in course, but believe child development and social emotional learning need to be a consideration as well.
“I agree with the temporary nature of the first stage and agree we should move as quickly as possible into the second phase,” Board President Laura Jaecks said. “While we are attempting to protect the physical health, we recognize the benefits of having children be around children, learning to interact. That’s an important part of child development. The longer we keep kids out, the more detrimental it will be in that regard. We are in a balancing place, as far as I’m concerned. We need to watch the numbers carefully and move as quickly as we can to bring kids back in.”
Board member Martin Barron said he appreciated the flexibility to change as conditions change.
“Tradeoffs are necessary and justified. What we think is the best action will change with knowledge and time,” he said.
The board will vote on the final version of the plan at the Aug. 11 meeting. The plan will then be sent to the state for approval required before school starts.
The draft plan will be posted on the district website, wenatcheeschools.org, in time for a Town Hall event at 6 p.m. Tuesday in which parents will get an opportunity to ask specific questions and get answers about everything from daily schedules to tech training.
Samples of the schedules presented Wednesday included set times for instruction, study, recess and lunch — not much different than students would have in the classroom. The curriculum and lessons being tackled by students remotely would continue once in-person instruction is allowed.
The district is working on plans for some at-risk and high-needs students to access in-person, in-class instruction from the beginning, Gordon said. Discussions also are underway to address childcare needs for working parents, parent support and training in the use of technology (the programs and the computers), teacher training and other issues raised by parents and teachers during the meeting. Many of the comments referenced the miseries following the closure of schools in March.
“That was an emergency plan. We learned a lot,” Gordon said.
Parents and teachers both requested more structure, he said. The district invested in an online learning platform called Canvas that will provide the foundation for much of that, and is embarking on training plans for teachers and staff. Staffing changes also are being considered to keep as many classified staff as possible employed during the all-online period, but it is possible that some staff reductions will be required.
Arrangements also are being made to provide safe, in-person orientation for students in the transition years — kindergarten/first grade, sixth grade and ninth grade so when in-school class begins, they will know their way around the new campus.
For parents who prefer to stick to the online option throughout the year, the district also is offering Wenatchee Internet Academy.
Wenatchee’s online start is similar to the plan presented Monday to the Eastmont School Board. Eastmont’s board is expected to vote on its plan next Monday. Other districts throughout the region are considering similar options. The plans from each district, once approved by the school board, must be submitted to the state superintendent’s office for approval before the start of school.