Blaine school board votes 4-1 for virtual start

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Less than a month before the 2020-21 school year begins, the Blaine school board voted during an August 8 special meeting to start the academic year with
remote learning.

The reversal of the district’s plans to teach classes in a hybrid model with the option for online-only classes followed an August 4 recommendation from the Whatcom County Health Department to county superintendents to start the year online.

“The work that we’re looking at, not just this year but for the next few years, is a collaborative approach that is going to take everybody working together to get over this hill,” Blaine school district superintendent Christopher Granger said in an August 5 special board meeting discussing the proposed plans. “It’s not going to be solved this year. It’s going to be a challenge and we need to work together to make that happen.”

Granger advocated for the district to follow the health department’s guidelines, reasoning that if Covid-19 cases rise in the schools, the impact could ripple through the community.

Granger said it was as important to him to meet families’ needs as it was to meet staff needs, and he wanted to respect teachers’ contracts. When he sent a July survey to teachers asking how they felt returning to in-person learning, Granger said only three were concerned. But as the August 26 start date neared last week, one-third of teachers said they were concerned. With that new data, Granger worried about having enough teachers for in-person learning.

The district’s previous plans for a hybrid model, where students split into two groups that alternate between in-person and remote classes, will not be wasted, Granger said. He plans to use this model when the district is ready to phase students in to buildings.

ABout 85 percent of Washington schools will begin fall with remote learning, Granger said in an August 11 community meeting, noting that not all school boards had decided on their plans for the year. The six other school districts in Whatcom County are beginning classes online, with Lynden being the last to announce a decision on August 9.

The Blaine school district’s plan aligns with the Washington State Department of Health’s guidelines for schools. Whatcom County has 63 confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people for the latest two-week period, according to August 10 state department of health data. This makes the county moderate risk, according to the new guidelines, because it has between 25 and 75 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people.

The state guidelines recommend moderate risk counties instruct students through remote learning with the option for limited in-person learning for students who benefit the most from the classroom, including students in life skills and special education programs, those experiencing homelessness and those without internet access. Moderate risk counties could expand in-person learning to elementary school students before slowly adding hybrid learning for middle and high school, according to
the recommendation.

In meetings over the past week, Granger has said the rate of cases in Whatcom County has climbed over the summer and he worries that trend would continue if schools opened.

The Blaine school board initially held a special meeting on August 5 to vote on the district’s plans but after over an hour of dead-end discussion, the board tabled voting on the resolution until after hearing public opinion at an August 6 community meeting.

The school board voted 4-1 to start the school year with remote learning during the August 8 special meeting, with Laura McKinney casting the dissenting vote. McKinney said she sees a need for parents to have options in the upcoming school year, which she believes the district can safely provide.

“I believe if there’s a will, there’s a way, and we needed to state there’s a way,” said McKinney, who can’t remember the last time the board didn’t vote unanimously.

McKinney said her ideal scenario would have the online-only option for families and staff who didn’t feel safe returning to the buildings, and in-person classes at limited capacity for families and students who need the most support for an equitable education. She worries that phasing in students will be a much longer process now.

Although the new plan will phase students into the building who most need in-person learning, Granger said phasing in wouldn’t start until, at minimum, three weeks after classes start, and at the recommendation of the health department.

For Anna Loveng, a parent without internet access, remote learning means moving to her mother’s Whidbey Island home four days per week, leaving her husband behind, or sitting in the Starbucks parking lot so her young children can attend school. Loveng’s children are two of over 200 district students without internet access, according to a district survey.

The mother of two primary school students and a class of 2020 graduate said she feels like she’s exhausted her options. She tried purchasing a $1,200 signal booster to no avail, considered purchasing equipment from Comcast and inquired about getting onto a Canadian cell phone plan to get a hotspot at her house.

Loveng said the school district has offered worksheets for her students to use instead of online learning, but she doesn’t want her children to miss social development with classmates.

Blaine city manager Michael Jones said the city does not provide WiFi, but it has identified Marine Park, city hall and the police station as locations where public WiFi could be expanded. But Jones said expanding public WiFi is a Band-Aid solution to the much larger issue of getting internet access to Blaine homes.

Granger said he is talking with the city and county officials, and internet providers, to address internet access in the county. He said during the August 11 community meeting that the district sent addresses without internet service to a Whatcom County committee working to send 160 hotspot devices to the district. If the a hotspot device does not work for families, Granger said people can opt for a USB drive with downloaded content from teachers or use WiFi in the school parking lots.

One message Granger has made clear is he is working to help families get a quality education.

“It never feels good when you don’t feel there’s a win-win solution,” Granger said. “Know this was done out of a great deal of compassion for students and was not done with ease.”

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