By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – In many ways, Monday was a typically drizzly Northwest winter day. But for many South Kitsap youngsters, it was the first time this school year they have come face-to-face with their teachers in classrooms as the South Kitsap School District’s back-to-school plan kicked off for students in kindergarten, first and second grade.
“So far so good!” beamed East Port Orchard Elementary principal Paul Hulbert a few hours after the school bell rang on the start of this unique first day.
“Everyone is so excited the kids are back. We get to see their smiling faces,” he said.
“The kids were super excited. A lot of them wanted to go straight to their classrooms,” teacher Richcia Lane said.
“I didn’t see any tears, even from kindergartners.”
The district’s “SK Flex” plan gives families the choice to have their kids go to school with a mix of classroom and remote learning days or to continue with just online learning.
Hulbert said approximately three-quarters of his students in grades kindergarten through second grade have chosen classroom learning, leaving a quarter of them continuing to participate in the online-only option. That statistic mirrored the participation across the school district, officials said.
On this first morning of in-class learning, parents lined up in their cars to bring their children to school. Kids wearing masks and rain gear had their temperatures checked before entering the building, then walked up the steps to the front door, where they were welcomed by staff members.
But the road to having students return to class was a bumpy one. It was only after a late decision Sunday by South Kitsap School District teachers to return to the classroom that the district was able to proceed with the return-to-class plan on schedule.
The night before classes were to begin, the South Kitsap Education Association representing teachers and certified school staff agreed to a return to school buildings. Four days earlier, SKEA voted not to return to the classroom after citing COVID-19-related health concerns. The original SKEA vote sent district administrators scrambling to try and resuscitate its back-to-school plan.
Only after a flurry of discussions between the district and the association were the leaders able to come up with ways to mitigate the education association’s concerns.
Mitigating factors included in the 11th-hour agreement included a pledge by the school district to pursue a plan enabling weekly rapid COVID student testing of students, teachers and staff, and to provide teachers KN-95 masks each week.
The district also clarified its plan on what will happen in instances where there are insufficient substitute teachers available. Also, a third party will inspect the heating, ventilation air conditioning systems in school buildings.
A sticking point for some association members involved determining what is considered a safe level of COVID in the community in order for teachers and students to return to the classroom. The acceptable ceiling was lowered from 350 cases per 100,000 to 250 cases per 100,000.
Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade “SK Flex” students are slated to return to classrooms on Jan. 25. Middle- and high-school “SK Flex” students are to return on Feb. 8.
This week, other Kitsap County school districts also started in-person education. Central Kitsap schools began classroom teaching for preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students. North Kitsap schools also resumed in-person teaching for kindergarten through second-grade students.