School district leaders from across the North Olympic peninsula got a chance to advocate for education issues with its three regional legislators at a virtual meeting on Dec. 15, a day before Gov. Jay Inslee announced he is loosening guidelines to encourage Washington schools to re-open.
Hosted by the Port Angeles School District, Tuesday’s meeting saw superintendents and board members from six school districts share successes and concerns from the previous 10 months under the shadow of COVID-19 restrictions with State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim), and state representatives Mike Chapman (D-Port Angeles) and Steve Tharinger (D-Port Townsend).
School leaders from Sequim, Port Angeles, Quilayute Valley, Quiliayute Tribal School, Cresvent and Cape Flattery districts gave the trio of legislators a virtual snapshot of conditions of providing educational services in a variety of in-person and remote learning models.
With a good portion of the focus Tuesday on education funding, Van De Wege reminded the school leaders that, most, through not all, of the state’s K-12 funding is constitutionally protected.
“Realize you’re in a much, much better spot than other folks who work with kids and struggling adults,” he said.
Jane Pryne, acting superintendent for Sequim schools, said by the middle of November the district has assimilated students through grade 5, along with high-need students at all grade levels, back into buildings for in-person instruction. Sequim uses an AA/BB hybrid model, with half of a grade level in school for in-person instruction on Mondays and Thursdays, 8:30 a.m.-2:45 p.m., and the other half in classrooms on Thursdays and Fridays.
“Then we were unable to staff our buildings, so we had to go remote,” Pryne said.
Pryne said staff and their union representatives have been busy in recent days developing a K-12 “re-entry plan” to get students back into classrooms. In the meantime, she said she’s hopeful
“We are very hopeful of bringing our students back,” she said. In the meantime, the school will continue in a remote model: “We’re making it work and we’re excited about it.”
Board directors Jim Stoffer and Eric Pickens presented the legislators with a 15-item list of Sequim’s legislative proprieties, topped by “ubiquitous affordable high speed internet” and “forest revenue apportionment withholding.”
Also making the list were: special education funding; school safety; flexibility of graduation requirements for students impacted by COVID-19; linking graduation requirements to career pathways; McKinney Vento homeless student assistance; truant student funding; school construction revenues; funding for behavioral support services and social emotional learning; expansion of work-based learning; K-12 world language instruction; full funding of basic education; – government-to-government education, and federal funding for unique programs.
“We have had pretty good success with our hybrid model,” said Sarah Methner, Port Angeles school board president, though she noted that students in grades 4-6 weren’t in school for very long before a decision was made to revert to remote learning in mid-November, despite no in-school transmissions of COVID-19.
She noted that an enrollment drop in Port Angeles has forced the school board to consider about $2.8 million in cuts.
Board director Cindy Kelly asked legislators to help the district retain regionalization funding — the state funding model that legislators created to help some districts address cost-of-living differences.
Kelly detailed other issues Port Angeles school leaders hope legislators consider key in the next legislative session: fully funding special education; revisiting the overall model for education funding; funding for employee benefits; a simple majority to pass school capital bind issues, and the permanent return of timber tax at state and federal level, among others.
Kelly, the board’s legislative representative, also asked legislators to avoid mid-year budget cuts for school districts
“Those are killer for us; we just don’t want to see that happen,” Kelly said.
Marty Brewer, Port Angeles School District superintendent, asked legislators to consider allowing for flexibility in using Learning Assistance Program (LAP) funds that are targeted to help students who are deficient in reading or reading-readiness skills.
Quillayute Valley School District
“We’ve very concerned with social and emotional status, even with our in-person students,” Diana Reaume, Quillayute Valley School District’s superintendent, told legislators.
About 600 students and 190 staff are on campus on any given week with the district’s half-day (8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.) hybrid model, Reaume said. No students have had a reported COVID-19 case nor has anyone had to quarantine, she said.
Many Quillayute Valley students who enjoy the extra-curriculars such as clubs and sports are feeling that loss greatly, she said.
“What they really come for is not there anymore,” Reaume said.
“It doesn’t do any good to open our doors and say, ‘Read a book.’”
The district projected about 980 students for the school year but saw about 880 sign up, and 30 percent of those chose to learn remotely, she said, and 52 chose the Running Start route.
The “higher performers” seem to be making substantial progress during the school year but “low performers” are performing even worse than in regular years, she said.
Reaume said she’s also seeing her district’s teachers with an “all-time level of fatigue” as they try to handle both in-person and virtual instruction responsibilities.
In terms of funding, Reaume said the district has spent all of its federal CARES funding and, along with technology and personal protective equipment (PPE) costs, the district is projecting a $1.3 million budget deficit.
Reaume asked the legislators to try to avoid any major education funding cuts or unfunded mandates.
“We just want to make sure we’re whole this year,” she said.
Cape Flattery School District
The Cape Flattery School District operated a hybrid model briefly this year but is now in a remote model, superintendent Michelle Parkin said.
Parking said he major concern now is her students’ social and emotional well-being.
“The one (concern) that is near and dear to my heart … is the mental health of our children. The concern is about the isolation,” she said. “We’ve been seeing the severity of isolation on our students.”
In addition, she said, staff are struggling with isolation issues.
“They are doing the best job they can but they are being impacted by the remote learning as well,” Parkin said.
She said Washington state would do well to have a dedicated agency to help school districts have a statewide approach to meet COVID health guidelines.
Crescent School District
All students in grades kindergarten-sixth grade are back in Joyce-area Crescent School District classrooms, noted superintendent David Bingham — with 252 students on campus, with another 38 learning remotely.
The district uses an AB/AB model, with half of students in a particular grade in classes Mondays and Thursdays, the other half in classes on Tuesdays and Fridays.
“We have not had any confirmed cases or close school contact as of today,” Bingham told legislators Tuesday. “That’s created confidence in both staff and parents that school can be done safely.”
Trisha Haggerty, Crescent school board chair, noted, “It seems like most students who are in school are happy to be back. I think things are going as well as they possibly could.”
Board driector Joey Currie said the hybrid model and openings and closing have been difficult on parents and students alike.
“We don’t know from day to day we’re going back to school or coming back home and learning entirely remote,” Currie said, and urged the legislators to push for a state policy to bring students back to classrooms
“I’d like to see our government encourage schools to get open or stay open,” Currie said.
Bingham said that in the short term he’d like to see legislators keep districts “whole” — i.e., no funding cuts — during the COVID crisis schools face enrollment losses, as well as look for more funding for staff for in-person instruction.
Crescent has seen a 12 percent drop in enrollment this year, he noted, ending a five-year growth tend. At the same time, the need for staff hasn’t dropped while custodians add hours to disinfect classrooms and paraeducators are adding 60-90minuts per day to help with student health screenings.
“Employee-related costs of in-person instruction during COVID is not sustainable into the future,” Bingham said.
The Crescent superintendent said the district is looking at a projected loss of revenue of about $492,000.
Long-term, he said, he’d like to see legislators address issues around the overall staffing model, special education, employee benefits, capital projects funding, rural connectivity and state forest land revenues.
Quileute Tribal School
Mark Decker, the first-year superintendent at the Quileute Tribal School in La Push, said early on a decision was made to go 100 percent online in tandem with Quileute Nation’s closure designed to protect the tribe’s elderly population.
“If COVID-19 were to get in … we would face a severe loss of our elder population,” he said. “We have stayed in this (remote learning) model for consistency purposes.”
The Quileute Tribal Council recently announced the extension of a “stay home” order through Jan. 29, 2021.
Decker said the district has spent a lot of time and energy into professional development as teachers made the transition from in-person to online instruction.
And while other districts have seen a decline in enrollment, Decker said the tribal school — which had budgeted for 100 students — has seen a rise to 129 students currently.
Attendance seems to grow for registered students each month as well, he said.
Quileute Tribal School leaders decided to make sure each student had technology in hand as early as July, Decker said.
Quileute is also getting assistance from the Quillayute Valley School District in getting meals to students who are unable to get on the Quileute reservation, Decker said.
The Quileute Tribal School is in the midst of getting a new school being built outside a tsunami zone. The $46 million project is scheduled to open in September 2022, he said.
Greg Lynch, superintendent for the Olympic Educational Service District 114 that advocates and serves about 50,000 students in the Clallam, Jefferson and Kitsap counties, said that he’d be advocating along the same lines as what he Washington State School Directors’ Association has identified as priorities: consistent, equitable and ample education resources; a revision of school funding model as it pertains to staffing allocations; special education funding, and capital facility funding formulas, among other things.
But, he admitted, the focus on anything other than getting students back into classrooms may be difficult.
Lynch said COVID-19 has shown that technology resources are imperative particularly for students on the Olympic Peninsula. In the short term, that means simply getting devices and internet services to students as far as the state’s West End, while in the long term that means more funding for infrastructure.
Lynch said local school districts are hoping for consistent funding.
“Let’s not do reductions mid-year, especially during this COVID crisis,” Lynch told the legislators.
A quartet of local high school students — two from Sequim, two from Port Angeles — joined school leaders and gave their perspectives on how they are handling the remote learning model.
Olivia Preston, a Sequim High School senior, said she is in the Running Start program and also holds down a job.
“I was frustrated at first — we were told it would be four to six weeks,” she said. “For us students, we have to look past that. We have to look at it as a global pandemic.”
Alisa Bibaj, a Sequim High junior, noted, “This year has definitely been a challenge for everyone. This pandemic just brought the best and worst for us.
“Sometimes it’s too hard; all my time is taken by the school work.”
Maize Tucker, a Port Angeles High senior, said her classmates are struggling with motivation without any clubs or sports teams with which to socialize.
“There’s almost nothing to look forward to,” she said. “We have too many students on the brink of giving up.”
Tucker urged the legislators to push for consistency in decisions about school openings.
“Decisions should be made on a student timeline,” Tucker said. “Nine months may not seem like a long time to you, but it is for us.”
Classmate Laken Folsom said Port Angeles youths are feeling “an exceptional sense of isolation.”
Folsom told legislators and school leaders, “I know there’s a lot of pressure to make everything is safe (so) if there is a way we could … socialize in a safe manner, we should.”