LONG BEACH PENINSULA — The Ocean Beach School District’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to begin the 2020-21 school year in a remote-only model at an Aug. 10 special meeting.

The decision came after recommendations from the Pacific County Public Health and Human Services Department and state officials, as well as OBSD Superintendent Amy Huntley, who formally presented her recommendation to the board at the meeting.

Why the decision was madeAt the outset of the meeting, Huntley said her recommendation to begin the school year remotely is probably the hardest decision she’ll ever have to make as a superintendent, and that the board’s decision on whether to approve it is probably the hardest decision they’ll ever have to make as board members.

“There’s no plan that’s going to meet everyone’s opinions and needs,” conceded Huntley. “We’ve got to do the best that we can, because really the board has to do their best — and so do I — to deal with the responsibility of educating our children, but also dealing with their health and safety.”

Pacific County’s battle against covid-19 has deteriorated in the past month, particularly in the southern half of the county. The worsening situation was followed by recommendations to postpone in-person instruction from both county and state health officials, and wait for the local situation to improve.

In late July, the county health department recommended to the county’s school districts to delay in-person schooling for at least one month, until early October. Katie Lindstrom, director of the county health department, said districts should be making reopening decisions on a month-by-month basis by examining data provided by the county and state.

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee and Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal unveiled new recommendations to Washington state’s school districts on what data they should be looking at when deciding whether or not to reopen school to in-person instruction. While legally non-binding, Inslee urged school districts to consider the guidance and input from local health officials when deciding whether to open doors to in-person learning.

The recommendations establish three categories in which a county is placed: high-risk, which are counties with more than 75 new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period; moderate-risk, which are counties with between 25 and 75 cases; and low-risk, which are counties with fewer than 25 cases. As of Aug. 10, Pacific County’s current rate is defined under state criteria as 97, putting it firmly in the high-risk category.

For school districts located in a county categorized as high-risk, the state strongly recommends them to provide remote-only instruction until the county’s new case rate lowers.

Huntley said her recommendation was guided by the science, data and recommendations from health officials, and came at it from the viewpoint of not only protecting the district’s students and staff, but protecting the health of the entire peninsula community.

“It’s not just the children’s health and safety. [It’s] the safety and health of our children, our teachers, our staff, our parents, our grandparents, all the people in our community,” said Huntley. “We collectively share a responsibility in this country, with our democracy, to look out for the common good and those that are the most vulnerable among us.”

Board members said they appreciated Huntley’s data-driven approach to the issue and that it prioritizes the health of students and staff while working to get students back in the classroom as soon as is practical.

“I just have to say I really appreciate this plan, because it is grounded in the health metrics — and our health metrics are really strong in this state — and it’s prioritizing getting kids back in school as soon as we can, but doing it safely,” said board member Tiffany Turner.

What it meansOBSD’s school year will begin remotely on Sept. 8, a week later than the originally scheduled Sept. 1 start date. The extra week is meant to give teachers and staff a few additional days to prepare and plan for the remote start, via additional waiver days being offered by the state.

The county health department’s recommendation to delay in-person instruction did leave the door open for districts to allow for in-person learning for special education or high-need students, such as younger students whose parents both work or students who live in households that don’t have internet access.

Huntley said if by Aug. 25 the local metrics have improved enough for OBSD to feel confident in keeping students safe, that the district will try to bring back high-need students to campus “as soon as humanly possible,” and perhaps as soon as the first week of the school year. OBSD may also look at bringing back kindergarten students for some on-campus instruction, even if only for one or two days a week.

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, Huntley said the district will take a look at the data and consult with health officials to determine whether it makes sense to move into a hybrid model. If the metrics show an improving situation and feedback from health officials is positive, OBSD would begin its hybrid model on Monday, Sept. 21. If not, a new date will be set to look at the metrics and consult with health officials.

“I talked to the Parent Advisory Committee about how many days of turnaround [is necessary], and we kind of agreed a Wednesday notification for a Monday start would give parents some days to adjust their schedules and arrangements with children and all that,” Huntley said.

If OBSD is able to return to in-person instruction this year as part of the district’s hybrid model, the plan is for each school’s students to be on-campus two days per week while learning remotely the rest of the week. At the two elementary schools, the plan is for K-2 students to be on-campus all five days of the week, while grades 3-5 would follow the hybrid model.

About 120 people were watching or listening to the meeting, held virtually via Zoom, including parents, staff and community members. Huntley answered questions and addressed concerns both board members and viewers had about the district’s plan, such as how the remote model will work and what the expectation is for teachers.

The Observer will have more details about how OBSD’s remote and hybrid learning models will operate in next week’s issue.

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