By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — To ease the transition for parents and students into the COVID-19 virtual teaching landscape, South Kitsap School District has begun hosting a series of online question-and-answer sessions to familiarize students and parents with how the upcoming school year, set to start Sept. 9, is to operate.
“We hope in the next hour we can answer some questions for you and provide some insight into what the reopening plan will look like,” Superintendent Tim Winter told parents at the kick-off session on Aug. 20.
“This is brand-new for everyone. We are in a different world of education. We are trying to work right along with you, shoulder-to-shoulder, to solve problems and provide the best education possible for your students,” Winter said.
The second back-to-school question and answer session will be held at 6 p.m., Tuesday via Zoom. The school district will provide instructions on its website calendar at skschools.org on how to access the session.
In addition to Winter, school officials participating in the first session were Dave Goodwin, principal of South Kitsap High School; Brian Carlson, principal of Marcus Whitman Middle School; Rachelle Byrd, principal of Manchester Elementary; and Andy Rogers, executive director of special services. Winter acted as host.
The Zoom session offered viewers an optimistic take on the new academic year while underscoring that remote learning is as new an experience for staff as it is for students and families.
School officials emphasized online teaching this fall will be different than it was last spring when the pandemic hit and caused schools to close with little notice.
“There is a huge contrast between last spring and what we are going to do this fall,” Goodwin said.
“We’ve got a daily schedule that people can count on. We are not going to have overlapping classes. And we have daily teacher contact, which I think is huge,” he said.
Starting in September, there will be time built into the school day for students to get extra help when needed.
To improve communication, students will also be provided Gmail accounts so school correspondence can go directly to them rather than being sent to their parents’ e-mail accounts, Goodman noted. In addition, parents will be able to participate in tutorials to learn how to use the technology involved in remote learning.
The school day schedule has been designed to keep students engaged and to promote learning, Carlson said.
“We need to make it as much like [regular] school as possible,” Carlson said.
Elementary and middle school students will be attending at least three virtual meetings during the day with the opportunity for kids to have teacher contact between the meetings, he said.
Meanwhile, high school teachers will instruct over four virtual sessions a day. The length of the sessions will vary, with shorter sessions designed for younger students.
Manchester Elementary principal Byrd told parents the district understands online learning exacts a toll on students and families but added that school officials are striving to assist families during this period.
“South Kitsap recognizes that remote learning is challenging for families, especially those that have working parents,” Byrd said.
“We are working to get internet access and devices for families, and are partnering with community organizations to provide groceries and child care.”
Byrd encouraged parents to reach out to the school community to seek assistance in solving issues that may arise.
More than 1,800 district students take special education classes, according to Andy Rogers, the district’s director of special services.
“Part of the challenge we face in special education is every student has their own unique program,” Rogers explained.
“One of the things many parents are frustrated about is they want to talk about their unique circumstances for their child,” he said.
The problem is that case managers are assigned to individual special ed students and know each child’s particular needs, but they have not yet been available to talk with parents.
“When [case managers] get back to work, they will be reaching out to each and every family and come up with a recommendation on how we can best provide services,” Rogers said.
In fall the district will use teletherapy in speech, occupational therapy and physical therapy sessions, a service that was not provided in the spring, he said. “We are making a major investment in terms of software and a platform and instructional material to be able to provide [teletherapy].
“Our number-one priority in special education is to provide the services to a student in their goal areas.”
School officials seem ready for the virtual teaching challenge.
“We are very ready for the start of the school year,” Winter said. “But we also know we are ‘ready for right now’ and there is going to be a lot of learning for us as we go.”