LONG BEACH PENINSULA — In their most contentious meeting since the covid-19 pandemic began last March, Ocean Beach School District Board of Directors approved a plan to restart some in-person learning at the district’s schools beginning this week.
While the decision from the board was unanimous, the meeting was fraught with tension, as members of the public passionately stated their case on why they thought in-person learning should or shouldn’t resume.
Making the decision
The decision to reopen schools came several weeks after the state released new and relaxed guidance for reopening schools.
The new recommendations suggest schools should prioritize in-person learning for elementary and middle school students if the case rate in their county is fewer than 350 cases per 100,000 people. The guidelines also state that in-person learning opportunities for high schoolers should be made available when the case rate is below 200.
At the time of the Jan. 6 board meeting, the case rate in Pacific County was 180. Two days earlier, Superintendent Amy Huntley said she received the “green light” to reopen schools from Pacific County Health Officer Dr. Steven Krager.
Along with the state recommendations, getting the OK from local health officials and local virus activity, Huntley said she also juggled the concerns and needs of students, parents, teachers and staff in making her recommendation to the board.
Among academic needs for students, Huntley said many students are failing courses at both the middle and high school, as well as high schoolers who still have incomplete grades from the last semester of the 2019-20 school year. Younger students, she said, are missing out on receiving “vital” support to build literacy and math skills.
While the Ocean Beach Education Association is currently against returning to in-person learning until the case rate in Pacific County drops substantially or teachers have received the vaccine, Huntley said “many” teachers had reached out personally to her to endorse reopening schools earlier.
“In Pacific County, there has been no transmission in schools,” Huntley said. “We have been very vigilant in [wearing] masks and following safety protocols … we have some things to tighten up, and we will do that, but we were pretty good about following [the protocols] before. Our testing has increased dramatically, so we can now get tested readily if we need it and want it.”
Eight bus drivers were furloughed over the winter break due to the closure of in-person learning, Huntley said, and others have seen their hours reduced. “They’re eager to return to work,” she said.
There has also been a reduction in hours among classified staff, that Huntley said could lead to layoffs. In-person support offered by classified staff members since in-person instruction closed down more than a month ago is what’s kept staff from being laid off, she said.
In making her recommendation, Huntley, in her second year in the position, lamented that the decision on whether to reopen schools fell on the shoulders of superintendents throughout the state.
“This is not an easy thing to recommend, and no superintendent thought they were going to be in this boat when they became a superintendent. It really should be the health department making decisions instead; it should not be on the board, it should not be on us,” Huntley said.
Teachers, board members speak out
Before Huntley’s recommendation was unanimously approved by the board, several teachers attending the virtual meeting criticized the reopening plan’s timeline to resume in-person learning so quickly.
Doug Pellerin, president of OBEA, said he felt the input from the union during the decision-making process had been “disregarded totally.” At a recent OBEA general meeting, he said about 90% of the roughly two dozen teachers in attendance voted not to reopen in-person learning until after teachers receive the vaccine.
Pellerin also asked for the board to delay its decision by a week, to see what the fallout is of newly reported cases in the county. The case rate in Pacific County had fallen to about 150 in the last week of December, was 180 on Jan. 6 at the time of meeting, rose to 199 on Jan. 8, and dropped to 120 as of Jan. 11.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I really thought there would be more consideration … granted it wasn’t every teacher, but when you have 90% of half of them [at the OBEA meeting], that’s a pretty strong recommendation. So I guess that’s what I’d have to say, and I’m pretty disappointed with being ignored in the final decision,” Pellerin said.
Several teachers also spoke out against the plan’s reopening timeline, echoing Pellerin’s concern that there hasn’t been enough time to examine the impact that Christmas and New Years had on the spread of the virus locally. Some sympathized with Huntley, saying they didn’t envy the position she was in.
One Ilwaco High School teacher who’s chosen to have her children learn via the remote-learning option this year, due to concerns over the virus, said she would pull her two children out of school, resign and homeschool them at night if OBSD moved forward with the proposed plan.
“I’ve experienced people in my life, a six-year-old, being sick [with covid-19] for an entire month, and she’s still continuing to have issues with it. I am not willing to sacrifice my family for my job,” the IHS teacher said. “I love my job, and I know a lot of teachers here do. I love my students … but this is ridiculous. I am not going to sacrifice my health, or the health of my family, just so people can get back to work, just for political or economic concerns. I don’t feel advocated for, locally or at a state level, and I know a lot of teachers are feeling that right now.”
Several board members acknowledged that they were brought to the verge of tears during the meeting. Michelle Binion, chair of the board, said the decision “is obviously an extremely difficult decision to make, and if it was easy the governor would have done it, or he would have had the health department do it. I feel like they just keep passing the buck — because no one wants to be held accountable for it — so it falls in our lap,” Binion said.
“I get emotional thinking about it, because it’s a challenging thing for everybody, and obviously this isn’t ideal. We desperately care about our teachers and our staff, and we don’t want anyone to have ailments, we know this is scary and terrifying. There’s just no right answer, so I hope that [teachers and the public] give us grace as we make this decision, because it’s not an attack on anybody, it’s not that we’re not listening to anybody. But the pros and cons, the weight of them, are very heavy.”
Before the board voted to approve Huntley’s recommendation, board member Tiffany Turner said that the highest priority needs to be getting students back into classrooms safely, and that the district needs to remain vigilant in making sure it’s staying up-to-date on the best covid-19 safety practices.
Classes resume this week
The school’s in-person reopening plan, drafted by Huntley and approved by the board, calls for classes to resume this week. Peninsula Pharmacies held a testing clinic on Jan. 11 for teachers and staff who wanted to be tested before in-person learning resumed, which the district paid for.
Long Beach Elementary is the first school to return students and staff to campus, on Jan. 13. It is also the only school that is fully reopening to five-day-a-week instruction, with the rest of the district’s schools transitioning into a hybrid model starting on Jan. 14.
The rest of the district’s schools will resume hybrid learning on Jan. 15, with students attending classes on-campus two days a week — the same as it was last fall before a surge in cases forced schools to close.
At IHS, students will continue its previous hybrid learning model through the end of the current semester, which permits students to be on-campus, separated in small groups, for 2-4 days each week as needed. Beginning on Feb. 8, students will be on-campus two days per week with a “traditional” schedule, rather than remaining in the same classroom for the entire school day. Students not on-campus on any given day will also be attending those same classes virtually.