Parents in the Ketchikan School District on Wednesday aired their concerns with the district's draft reopening plan for schools in the fall before the Ketchikan School Board.
The discussion highlighted the vast number of conveniences afforded by physical schools — safety, supervision, convenience, social opportunity, technology, access to help — that district administrators will need to consider as they work to develop a final reopening plan to submit to the state by the end of July.
By far the most prevalent issue parents took with the district's Smart Start 2020 reopening plan on Wednesday was the plan's use of remote teaching methods.
Under the district's plan — developed using the state Department of Education and Early Development's reopening framework — students would resume learning through a mix of in-person and remote teaching methods according the community's risk of coronavirus transmission. Even with a low transmission risk, schools would only reopen at 50% capacity, dropping to just 25% in a medium-risk scenario.
Superintendent Beth Lougee explained in a June 19 update to the district that the district used the state's guidance and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reopen.
DEED Commissioner Michael Johnson stated plainly in the state framework document that it is the responsibility of schools and districts to keep students safe.
"The only expectation of public education that eclipses its responsibility to provide an excellent education for every student every day is to take all necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of every student every day," Johnson wrote.
It is in that spirit that the framework "provides considerations, recommendations, and best practices to ensure a safe and successful 2020-2021 school year," the framework states.
When the risk of coronavirus transmission in the community is high, the framework recommends distance learning for all students; when the risk is moderate to low, it condones in-person learning but recommends seating students at least six feet apart to minimize the risk of spread. The CDC guidance recommends similar precautions.
"In order for our schools to follow those federal and state guidelines," Lougee wrote in her update, "we cannot run at full capacity. We just can't. There is just no way we can follow the six feet rule, for example, in a classroom with 28 students.
"A committee who has been working on this for over a month researched and factored in a number of things like square footage, numbers of students, numbers of staff, etc. and found 50% capacity to be the most viable number to meet the CDC and state guidelines for low risk requirements in Ketchikan Schools," Lougee continued.
But on Wednesday local parent Nathaniel Currall challenged how that calculation was performed. He pointed out that according to the Point Higgins Elementary School yearbook, the largest class size was 23 students, and classes on average have less than 20 students.
Other parents, too, argued for a full reopening on the grounds that the state framework and the CDC recommendations are not mandates or requirements. The DEED framework states that its guidance "is not mandated, or state required. Local school districts have the authority, responsibility, and flexibility to make decisions to be responsive to their communities."
Board President Bridget Mattson responded that all school districts in the state are required to develop reopening plans that follow DEED's three-tiered reopening framework and submit them to the department by the end of July. She noted the existence of a plan does not mean it will necessarily be implemented in the fall.
"That is a requirement that is placed on our district — to have these plans in place in the event that our community feels that we are in a situation where these plans need to be enacted," Mattson said. "There is not a requirement that we utilize these plans if we are in a ... community-determined environment that we feel is not a risk to our students."
Still, parents on Wednesday questioned whether district planners had seriously considered reopening schools at full capacity, as did Board Member Sonya Skan, who was absent from the board's May 27 meeting and from its Tuesday evening work session.
Skan acknowledged her absence from those meetings and apologized, but said based on what she had heard from parents she felt the district ought to consider a full reopening.
"I think what's happening right now is, we're going in just going in like worst-case scenario, rather than going in and saying, 'We're going to start school,'" Skan said. "The parents understand the risks. ... We need to make sure that every base is covered, and we forgot the first base."
Adding to the confusion, many parents still did not understand what criteria the district would be using to determine when to change its risk level and transition to another scenario.
According to the state framework, the definitions of low, moderate and high transmission risk levels will be determined at a local level, not by the state.
Lougee said at Tuesday's work session that the district is still developing its criteria for each risk level. Board Member Paul Robbins, Jr., assured the audience that the evaluation of risk level would consider the context of each case, such as whether the individual testing positive was a resident or a seasonal worker.
Another concern was the issues with kids learning from home.
Local parent Tiffany Cook reminded the board that many children would be learning remotely unsupervised under the Smart Start plan, potentially putting them in danger.
"For many kids — more than we want to admit — school is their haven from a difficult home life. We are stealing that security from them in the name of mitigating risk," Cook said. "The long-term effects of not being in school are exceedingly negative, including learning delays, social-emotional development, and mental health. But most of all, make no mistake, the majority of these kids will be home alone, or home in the care of another sibling who also may be very young.
"Many parents don't have the means or the will to get these kids to alternate locations," she continued. "Kids being at home alone presents a great number of risks, so I ask you: What level of risk is acceptable? How many children have to be burned or worse yet lost in a house fire? How many children have to suffer accidental poisoning because they couldn't read the label on something they found in the kitchen? ... How many children is it acceptable to get hit by a car on a dark road because there was no one to tell them not to go outside?"
Board members said that extended learning opportunities, another piece of the Smart Start plan, could help address those concerns. According to the district's Smart Start website, ELOs are "meant to keep students academically engaged while at a separate location working on math, reading, writing skills, arts, music, band, field trips, swimming lessons, etc."
"Paraprofessionals will provide students grade-appropriate as well as ... remote support for students and families," the website continues. "While parents/caregivers are partners in this work, we recognize that families face different situations that affect the level of support they can provide their children at home. Parents/caregivers are afforded flexibility in supporting their children in these learning opportunities and should work with their teachers if they have any questions or needs."
Lougee added Wednesday that administrators are examining whether the district would be able to reopen schools at 50% capacity in the medium risk scenario, rather than the current 25% capacity.
Other parents, recalling their experience with the district's switch to remote learning in March, were skeptical that remote learning could measure up to classes in person.
District parent Angela Blandov, in an emotional testimony, said her children will be unable to learn effectively with Zoom classes due to their special needs.
"We did Zoom, and she's constantly looking around anywhere and everywhere, and the first several weeks, did not understand how she could see her teacher and her friends, and her para, but she didn't know where they were at," Blandov said. "She can't focus more than five, 10 minutes — she has ADHD, and she moves all over the place. So, her learning ability to do through Zoom, half the time, she couldn't sit still to even do it, and then try to keep her involved, and sit still, to do her activities.
"(The paras are) amazing, that, if she can't sit still, they take her physically to walk the halls, they take her physically, to need a break, to go do the trampoline," she continued. "I often have to spend 10, 20, 30 times to get her to focus and pay attention to what she eats, let alone her education. And again, I have two children. ... My children, they deserve an education because they need that in order to move through their life."
"Zoom just does not work for my children," Blandov said.
Other parents expressed similar concerns about the effectiveness of remote teaching tools, especially for younger students. Many of the parents said the remote learning that the district implemented in late March was riddled with problems.
Board Member Jordan Tabb acknowledged the validity of those concerns, and noted that special education teachers would be working with students with individual education programs as well as their parents to maintain services. He stressed that the district is keeping in mind the successes and failures of the transition to remote learning in the spring as it further works on the Smart Start plan.
"I do appreciate the comments about how the Zoom meetings went in the spring. I just really want to emphasize that the crisis education model which we resorted to in the spring is so different from what's expected of our educators in the fall," Tabb explained. "We put together a model of trying to be there for students at a time when everyone — students, staff, parents — were in a state of crisis. And we can look back at it and say, 'Wow, there are some things we really would not want to do again.' Like, we made our best effort with the data that we had to be accessible and available to kids. In some cases, it worked OK, in some cases, it really didn't work at all. And we can learn from that.
"Something that we have learned is that we need — if we are going to provide blended learning, based on what's safe for children — we have to invest in the time to do that. We can provide excellent blended learning opportunities, as some community members have found when they've engaged with homeschool programs or blended learning provided by a professional agency, when it's provided by staff who are capable and prepared and proficient in those tools, we can do so much with that."
Tabb said it was important to remember that there would also be children in the district who might flourish with remote learning.
"I know, personally, for some children I've either worked with or live with, six to eight hours a day of school is a nightmare, because it's at the pace of the classroom," Tabb said. "And if they're exceptional learners, or they're proficient in some areas, they could get a lot done in two hours — say, 'Hey, just show me the book, let me read it, get out of my way, and if I have to sit next to that kid who drools and spits at me, I'm going to punch him, and then I'm going to be in the office. Just let me do my work.' ... They have possible learning opportunities that could come from that."
Cook suggested that parents could choose to send their kids to school by agreeing to waive their right to take legal action against the school if their child contracted the novel coronavirus. Several parents were enthusiastic about the idea and said they would support such an initiative.
Board Member Diane Gubatayao recommended discussing that notion with an attorney to determine whether it would be feasible. Tabb said he thought the proposal was a "non-starter."
"As I see it, we can either provide school that's safe, or we can't," Tabb said. "And so, the notion of saying that, based on parental preference, we can provide a school environment that is not safe but provide the learning experience that's wanted for some students, and other students will not have access to the same learning opportunity simply because of parental preference, creates two tiers of education opportunities. ... We have a commitment to provide fair and equal access to opportunity in education for all students in the district."
Board members reassured parents that more guidance from DEED and the CDC would be forthcoming, and promised parents that they would not be kept out of the loop.
Lougee concluded the discussion by thanking parents for their feedback, reminding them that the district has been working hard on the plan.
"I ask for patience as we work through this," Lougee said. "Sometimes I sit up here, and I feel like I can't communicate fast enough, hard enough, soon enough to get the word out. But we are working. We have staff that are working way over their contracts. ... It does hit a nerve when we're told that we're not doing what's best for kids, because there's not one person who's an educator in this district that doesn't want to do what's best for kids."