By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – The South Kitsap School District board of directors made an about-face Monday night and decided that its students will engage in online schooling only when school begins Sept 9.
The decision brings the school district in line with other regional districts in Kitsap County that have decided to begin school online only.
The board has voted three separate times in the past month on how best to have students safely return to school this fall. In its first two votes, the board approved a “Flex” plan that included an option for families to choose a combination of classroom and remote learning. Those decisions led to a public outcry based on health concerns. Community opposition to the option led directors to hold a special meeting Aug. 10 so the board could reconsider its decision.
Under the decision to conduct remote learning, the district said it can reassess the county’s COVID-19 situation after nine weeks of school and decide if health conditions have improved so it is safe for students and staff to transition to having a portion of their school week held in classrooms.
The board voted 4-1 to approve all-remote learning after a two-and-a-half-hour Zoom and Facebook meeting that attracted nearly 800 viewers at one time. Board directors Liz Sebren, Rebecca Diehl, John Berg and Eric Gatttenby voted for the online-only plan. Jeff Daily opposed the plan.
When it was time to vote, Berg “passed” and after everyone else announced their decision, Berg voted to approve the new plan. Previously, Berg supported having the Flex plan as an option for families. He did not give a reason for his changed position.
Daily, in voting against the remote-only plan, stressed the importance of the district providing families with options about how their children would be educated.
Superintendent Tim Winter recommended that the school begin with only online learning in light of advice from county health officials, which was the same position he had taken during earlier votes.
“We are in the business of education but sometimes that needs to take a backseat to the health and safety of our community,” Winter told directors and those watching the virtual meeting.
“We spent quite a bit of time looking at how we could bring students back … but it is not possible based on [health] requirements. We need to make sure the students are safe,” Winter said.
A point of contention that arose during the meeting was in determining when the school district can decide to allow willing students to return to the Flex plan with in-classroom learning.
Daily said he felt the transition should happen as soon as health conditions permit, even if that occurs between now and the start of school. Sebren, a former teacher, pressed board members to have the district look at the COVID-19 situation no earlier than nine weeks after the start of the school year.
“It’s nice to know that nothing will change before this date. Having a finite time that people know nothing will change, I think, would be beneficial to everyone,” Sebren said.
Board members agreed with Sebren’s view, deciding that certainty about the first few weeks of the school year will benefit parents who need to contend with scheduling issues and school officials faced with staffing decisions.
Daily questioned whether going to all-remote teaching would lead to teacher layoffs.
Winter answered by saying the issue is less about layoffs than furloughs or shortened workweeks for staff. Furloughs may be possible if the school district had a “significant drop” in enrollment, he said, adding, “but I don’t see that.”
Staffing issues are expected to be discussed in more detail at the next board meeting.
Winter also addressed the current outlook on sports and after-school activities during the 2020-2021 school year.
“The latest on athletics is we will not have sports in season one. Those sports will be pushed towards the end of the year,” he said.
“For students in the arts [band and choir], we are trying to keep the door open for those to happen because we think those are important things for our students. Same thing [goes] for after school clubs,” Winter said.
The board decision brings South Kitsap in line with the other Kitsap districts, including Bremerton, Central Kitsap, North Kitsap and Bainbridge Island, all which have decided to start the school year with online-only instruction.