By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — After seven weeks of remote teaching, the South Kitsap School District will soon transition to its planned “flex” schedule of in-person teaching and remote learning, beginning with their youngest students on Nov. 9.
The return to conventional in-person teaching kicks off with kindergarten and first graders. The young children, whose families chose for them to either take part in the SK Flex in-class option, will attend half-day sessions four days a week. Students will be divided into two groups, with half attending class at school in the morning and the other half arriving in the afternoon.
Second and third graders will transition on Nov. 23 while fourth, fifth and sixth graders begin Dec. 7. All K-5 students will operate under the half-day model.
Classes will take place Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is reserved for independent student activities and teachers to virtually connect with individual students and do lesson planning. Maintenance staff will perform deep cleaning Wednesdays in addition to daily cleaning, according to school officials.
Meanwhile, seventh and eighth graders are tentatively set to return to classrooms Jan. 5 with high school students transitioning back Feb. 8. Secondary students will attend in-person classes two days a week and engage in remote learning three days a week.
Families have the option to have their children return to the classroom or continue with the remote learning option.
Teachers, meanwhile, can request to teach remotely if they are in a high-risk health category. Criteria include if a teacher or someone in their household has relevant health issues, according to the school officials.
The reaction by teachers to the upcoming transition is mixed and varies from smiles to frowns over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and how it affects their teaching methods.
Teachers speak out
To find out how teachers feel about the district’s transition to the SK Flex model, the Independent spoke with the leader of South Kitsap’s represented teachers and two South Kitsap instructors.
Opinions among teachers about returning to in-person education are wide-ranging, said John Richardson, president of the South Kitsap Education Association. He said their concerns largely center on health and safety concerns, and academic issues.
Their concerns regarding health issues and the possible spread of the COVID-19 virus among students and staff at school also extend to the possible exposure of the virus to family members, including grandparents, said Richardson, who represents 675 teachers and certified school staff.
“There is a wide range of how much risk people are willing to take,” he said.
The unknowns about COVID-19 are contributing to the uncertainties held by teachers and staff, Richardson said.
“We have not had a solid federal response to [the pandemic]. If we had such a response we would be keeping data on school outbreaks and would know what the level of risk really is,” he said.
South Kitsap Superintendent Tim Winter is confident, however, that health concerns are being addressed in the back-to-the-classroom plan.
“We have protocols in place that will keep students and staff safe. Our priority is the safety of our students and staff. We are not going to bring students back until we know it’s a safe environment,” Winter said.
Two views from teachers
Jordan Carte is a second-grade teacher at South Colby Elementary. Concerned about returning to the classroom, she has asked to continue doing online teaching and is awaiting word from the district about the request.
“It’s odd to hear on the news how our country is entering into the worst week of the pandemic that we have seen and we are talking about returning to school at the same time,” she said.
“Even if our [COVID] numbers look good now, how will they be after Thanksgiving? I’d love to be back in the classroom with my students but I worry about putting my family at risk.”
Carte, an educator for four years, is also concerned about the ability of young students to wear masks during school.
“Little kids play with everything. They will likely have a hard time keeping it on their face and wear it properly for the time they are in school. That’s just kids.”
Another uncertainty deals with the possibility that she could have to quarantine multiple times if exposed to someone who has the virus. It’s unclear if her sick leave will cover the absences, she said.
Carte also has concerns on the academic side. Since schools have to determine whether families want their children to be taught in-person or learn remotely and determine which teachers will only teach remotely, there is a question about what group of students Carte will be teaching. There is a chance that due to staffing issues, she could be suddenly called upon to teach a different grade, she said.
“I know we don’t all agree. There are teachers in my building who are ready to get back to school. But I think we all come from a place where we all care for our kids.”
One teacher who cannot wait to see his students in-person is Scott Hopkins, a 30-year veteran teacher who has spent his entire career at Sidney Glen Elementary. Currently, he teaches fifth-grade students.
“I am looking forward to it. I am anxious to get the kids back in,” Hopkins said, adding he wishes his class would be the first one back.
“By getting them back into the classroom, I feel like we are going to really have a better impact on them and their learning. Especially for our kids who struggle and may need extra assistance,” he said.
Hopkins believes there is no comparison between teaching remotely versus having students in a classroom.
“Give me 25 kids in a classroom and I can read that class so much easier than I can read a computer screen with 25 little boxes of kids – with some of them sitting in dark rooms, some oddly lit and some who have turned off their screen so I don’t even have a video picture of them.
“I can keep them engaged far easier in a live classroom than on screen.”
Hopkins is confident that health and safety issues will be addressed.
He is part of the safety team at Sidney Glen, which will ensure there will be social distancing in the school building and that classrooms are equipped with cleaning materials. Also, he helped formulate a master plan to avoid “crossovers,” or situations when students from different classes interact with each other in the hallways or on the playground.
“I do have confidence we can do the things we need to do to make our school safe.”
2020 has been a tumultuous year for local educators who with short notice had to come up with creative ways to virtually teach and now need to change gears and prepare for in-person teaching coupled with safety protocols. With all the changes, it is not surprising that teacher morale has taken a hit.
“It’s low,” union president Richardson said.
“Teachers are working — and this is no exaggeration — incredible hours, like 12 to 16 hours a day, trying to teach remotely. This is new ground. They had figure out how to educate in a virtual environment. The curriculums we are teaching were not set up for online school.”
Besides, teachers have been hurt by comments posted on social media asserting that teachers’ pay should be shared with parents, implying educators have not been putting in much time, he said.
Teacher Carte said, “We started this [school] year with more energy. We embraced online learning and the new challenges with the understanding we wanted to do our best. I think as time goes on, the stress wears on you. I think all of the unknowns make it harder.
“The closer we get to this deadline of transitioning, the harder it is to have a more positive outlook in things,” she said.
Hopkins agreed that morale has taken a beating. “I think people are at a higher stress level but most people are putting on a brave face.
He joked: “I think if every one of us won the lottery today, we’d retire and go to the beach.”
Superintendent Winter applauds the efforts undertaken by the teachers.
“We are in a unique situation. Teachers have had to adjust what they have done for many years to still create positive relationships with students and provide a rigorous learning environment,” Winter said. “I think we have been very successful in that. I’m really proud of the work the staff has done.”
Subject to change
The decision to have students return to their school buildings will be based on science as it relates to COVID-19 and the continued monitoring of health conditions, Winter said.
“We’ve seen three spikes in Kitsap County and we are assuming there will be more, so we are keeping eyes on those numbers and are always talking with Kitsap Public Health District.”