Evans: NKSD focuses on feelings during COVID

Teachers during planning periods, and even principals, have had to fill in because of staff shortages, North Kitsap School District superintendent Laurynn Evans said during the annual State of the School address Nov. 10.

The district is facing some of the same issues as other districts, such as critical staff shortages. On any given day, there are approximately 30 vacant positions without applicants, despite offering a competitive salary within the market, she said.

“We struggle with having substitutes. We are used to having a sub-pool of about 40 to 50 individuals who can step in for absent employees at any given time. Right now, our sub pool hovers between 11 and 12. We’ve had to ask teachers to teach during their plan time,” Evans said.

The situation is so dire that principals are going in to teach classes, and the staff in the student support center has been deployed out to schools. “It’s tough,” she said.

Evans said the start of school went well. “I visited all eleven campuses within the first three days of the academic year, and what I saw at every turn were kids who were excited to be back in their classroom, teachers who couldn’t wait to work with kids again, and a lot of smiles, which obviously are hard to see behind the mask. But you can tell when people are smiling through their eyes…”

Kindergarten through fifth grades are using a curriculum called Ruler, and sixth to 12th grades are using a curriculum called Character Strong. “The core part of Ruler and Character Strong is for students to understand how they are feeling and how they are looking and moving around the world. So they can be aware of what they might want to, or need to do to get into a place, to be able to be more productive or be happier,” Evans said.

Evans highlighted blended learning – the use of technology and instruction. When she first came to the district in 2007, there were few laptops and many devices were older than the students using them. But through the use of grant and capital levy money, the district has made huge strides in integrating technology into instruction, she said. This year, every student received an individualized device.

“The students were so excited and proud to have their device,” she said. “It’s been really wonderful to be out in schools and watching how well those devices have been integrated into learning. The district has made huge strides in preparing students to be ready for a world that is yet to be imagined…”

She was pleased to see how well students and staff were adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols.

Evans explained how the district is focusing on social, emotional wellness and is using a curriculum in classrooms to help students identify the feelings they’re having. “COVID has been very difficult on our kids. It’s been difficult on everyone. And so we’ve really taken the time and energy to ensure that our students are in a place to be able to be ready to learn.”

Evans praised her leadership team that has been working up to 16-hour days to meet the needs for contact tracing and all the requirements to manage and mitigate COVID. “After the kids go home, that’s when they start doing the actual part of their job, and so it’s made for some very long days,” Evans said.

Evans knows that some people are frustrated, but asked the community for some empathy as it navigates these challenges. “Everyone is working extremely hard to keep schools open.”

That’s their No. 1 priority but if the district needs to pivot to remote learning or possibly close operations it will notify the public with as much advanced notice as possible. “I am grateful because, on the whole, our community has been incredibly supportive of our schools and incredibly understanding and wonderful to work with,” she said.

With the strategic plan, that was adopted just before COVID as a guide, Evans said that the vision, mission and core values hold true. “Whether we’re in the middle of a pandemic or not, this plan is now battle-tested. It has definitely served us well throughout the pandemic to help us prioritize and make hard decisions.”

The plan guided the way to focus on whole-child learning with a social, emotional curriculum and equitable access to opportunity while ensuring that all students have access to their education, whether or not they have broadband or cell access at home. “We’ve really worked hard to provide those resources to all of our kids,” she said.

Even though navigating a pandemic is excruciatingly difficult on some days, it also presents a lot of opportunity to get better at how we’re working with students, she said.

The past two years have been the most difficult of her professional career, “but I can’t imagine a place I would rather do this than here. And it’s chiefly in part because of the incredible partnership of those who live and work in our community.”