By Mike De Felice
Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – Parents of South Kitsap school children had the opportunity to talk with school board members Wednesday during a special South Kitsap School Board-sponsored Town Hall.
With no agenda set for the two-hour Zoom session, the format allowed as many people as possible to voice their questions and concerns about their children’s education. The majority of the evening’s questions were related to COVID issues, including concerns as to whether remote learning might return and the wisdom of continued mask requirements.
For the most part, the virtual session included respectful conversation. However, a handful of individuals who swore at board members or while asking questions were quickly muted.
The first question centered on how difficult this school year has been on families and students; the questioner asked whether the district planned to return to remote learning.
“School in our district has been like a roller coaster every single day,” Tess Tolentino said. “[Bus] drivers are out sick. [Schools] are short-staffed. Have we talked about remote learning? Teachers keep sending those notifications that we might. Have you guys talked about that?”
Tolentino’s concern follows SKSD’s closure of schools two days earlier this month because of a spike in local COVID cases among students and staff, which resulted in a teacher shortage. But schools plan to maintain in-person teaching, board president Jeffrey Wilson said.
“We just had a few days off to catch back up because of staff shortages and also having a few kids out. The goal for this year is to try and keep everyone in school for as long as we can do it safely. We do have a backup plan to be able to pivot to remote if and when it’s necessary. Although that’s not our goal,” Wilson said.
“It’s definitely has been very chaotic. We, like every other organization and business, keep struggling with staffing shortages.”
School superintendent Tim Winter echoed Wilson’s comments.
“Right now, there is no plan to go remote. Our goal is to keep students in-person. We want to keep our students in school because we know that’s the best place for them educationally and the best place for them as far as their health is concerned,” Winter said.
A number of parents strongly voiced their desire for school officials to end the mask requirement for kids. Those parents questioned the effectiveness of the cloth masks against omicron and said masks presented problems for kids with medical conditions such as asthma.
Board members said they understood it was inconvenient for students to wear masks but pointed out the board does not have the ability to reject the state’s mask mandate.
“Those folks that are looking for us to do something different than what the state and guidelines do, I think you are going to find yourselves disappointed,” Wilson said.
“We need to follow those laws and regulations in order to keep our funding. Without funding, we have about three to four weeks of funding and then we would be done with school because we wouldn’t be able to pay teachers and staff to keep the buildings open.
“It’s frustrating for all of us. It’s frustrating for me personally. I’d like to see us get back to normal, but we have to follow [regulations] that will keep us safe,” Wilson said.
Superintendent Winter added: “The school district has the responsibility to follow the mandates that have been given to us from the Department of Health, state education agency, and the governor. We all want to have the choice not to wear masks, but at this time we can’t. There aren’t any districts that I’m aware of in the state of Washington that are defying the mask mandate.”
Board member John Berg indicated people have reason to be upset with state requirements but added dissatisfaction with COVID mandates should be focused on elected officials, not the school board.
“I believe a lot of the government authority has overstepped their bounds,” Berg said. “I think we need to address our elected officials at the state and national level because as a school board, we are pretty much bound to follow the regulations that are given to us by those higher up.”
Concern was also raised over the shortage of bus drivers across the district that has led to difficulties in getting kids to school.
Gerry Austin asked what school officials were doing to entice more drivers. He asked if creative solutions to solve the shortage were being examined, such as partnering with regional transit agencies or approaching those with CDL licenses at the shipyards.
The superintendent replied, “That’s a great question. We have looked at those things. We are in a really competitive market for people with CDLs. Every district in the state is dealing with driver shortages.”
Winter said this week the district had to cancel two bus routes and add back another one.
A parent identified as “Lindsey” questioned why parents are allowed to attend high school sporting events like basketball games without proof of vaccination but are not allowed to volunteer to assist in their children’s classroom or help on field trips.
The superintendent indicated vaccinations are mandated for anyone working in schools and with students.
“In athletic contests and drama performances, we made a decision to allow parents to come in and be part of their student’s activities. When you go to a basketball game, you are not [within] six feet of students. You are there as a spectator by choice. There is a distinction there. It’s not scientifically based, it is based on trying to support the community,” Winter said.
A number of parents said they appreciated the work the school board members are doing.
“These are extraordinary times,” Lee Fenton said. “I just wanted to thank everyone on the board for stepping up and representing our school district. It’s a job that not many of us would aspire to.”
Fenton said he appreciated the board listening to individual stories from parents and being willing to follow up on special cases.
At the end of the virtual town hall, board members told viewers the session was informative for them and hoped it had also been so for parents.
“I really appreciate every single person who came on and asked questions. This is how we make our district transparent. We increase communication,” said Kate Espy, a newly appointed board member who replaced Eric Gattenby, who resigned late last year.
Berg added: “I think this was a very productive format and I would like to see it repeated.”