By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Following an outcry from community members following the South Kitsap School District decision last week to start fall classes with an option of onsite classroom and remote instruction for students, the district’s board of directors said Friday afternoon it will reconsider its decision at a special board meeting at 4 p.m. on Monday.
The meeting will be conducted remotely through SKSD’s website: skschools.org.
At its Aug. 5 meeting, the school board voted 3-2 to retain the hybrid option, in which students and parents could choose either all-remote learning or a combination of in-classroom and online instruction this fall. Board directors Eric Gattenby, John Berg and Jeff Daily voted for the two-option plan; Rebecca Diehl and Liz Sebren voted against the plan and advocated for an all-remote learning plan.
The vote came following distribution of a letter by Kitsap Public Health District to local school districts July 27 that stated, “We do not feel that it is safe to open schools for traditional classroom learning in August or September,” citing the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Kitsap County.
One modification of the original school plan made by the board’s vote was to make online learning the automatic choice for families unless they choose the “Flex” option, which includes part-classroom and part-remote learning. Under the original plan approved in July, the default choice for students was the Flex plan.
The board’s split decision was cast despite a recommendation by Superintendent Tim Winter to allow only remote learning at South Kitsap schools in the fall.
“To me, this is a health crisis, not an academic crisis. I can’t with good conscience say it’s safe for all of us to go back,” Winter told the well-attended virtual board meeting.
“I think it’s a dangerous move at this point. I just wanted to go on the record and state that my recommendation is that we start in a fully remote model for at least the first nine weeks, and then we can reassess. As the data improves or gets worse, we can adjust,” the superintendent said.
Board member Jeff Daily supported the hybrid plan, which would allow families to decide the format in which their children would be taught during the upcoming school year.
“It’s a very emotional issue,” Daily said. “Our district is a business. Our business is educating kids.
“What our customers — the parents — want are choices. What we offered originally was a choice. Folks can choose to come or not as can our teachers. If no kids come to school, that’s a choice. If everyone goes online, that’s a choice. If no teachers show up, that’s a choice. We need to offer our customers a choice.”
Eric Gattenby also supported maintaining the original plan.
“Out of the board members, I am the one who has a child still in school. It is my intention for her to attend school in-person,” Gattenby said.
Liz Sebren, however, opposed maintaining the two-choice plan.
“My personal feeling is the safest way to start would be to start fully remote like all of our neighboring districts and recommended by Kitsap Public Health District,” Sebren said.
She said it would be easier to start with remote learning and later move into the flex program after nine weeks.
The school district’s liability should a student or staff member contract the virus at school was a concern for Sebren and Rebecca Diehl, who also voted against the two-option plan.
Diehl said she understood the district would not be covered in a COVID-19 lawsuit if SKSD decides against following the recommendation of the county’s public health district.
Board member Berg said he believed requiring parents to opt-in to the Flex plan, which includes some classroom learning, would mitigate some of the district’s liability.
“We cannot guarantee that no child will get sick. We cannot guarantee there will not be a fatal bus accident either. But, we still operate the buses even though there is a risk. Those who choose to come [for in-person classroom learning], whether they be staff or students, can make that choice and assume the risk,” Berg said.
The SKSD decision affects students in grades 2-12. Students in K-1 grades and some in special education classes will receive in-class instruction during a shortened school week this fall.
The county’s other public school districts, which include Bremerton, Central Kitsap, North Kitsap and Bainbridge Island, have decided to begin the school year with online-only instruction.