In-person learning a top priority for Peninsula school leaders

Districts want to get back to normal

PORT ANGELES — Representatives from Clallam County public school districts let 24th District legislators know they will be hurting financially over the next year and said they need to get students back into in-person learning.

State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim and state Reps. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles and Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend heard from representatives of the Port Angeles, Sequim, Cape Flattery, Crescent and Quillayute Valley school districts, as well as the Olympic Educational Service District and Quileute Tribal School during a two-hour virtual meeting on Tuesday.

The three Democrats also heard from Sequim and Port Angeles students, who urged the state to allow more in-person learning.

The day after the meeting, Gov. Jay Inslee announced looser school reopening guidelines. School districts in counties with case rates below 50 per 100,000 population for two weeks can provide in-person education for all students. If case rates are between 50 and 350 per 100,000 residents, the state encourages districts to open elementary and middle schools. In counties with more than 350 cases per 100,000 residents, the new standards encourage elementary school students to be returned to school in small groups of 15 or fewer.

Clallam County had a case rate of 157 per 100,000 for the past two weeks as of Thursday, while Jefferson County’s case rate was about 94 per 100,000 for the two weeks prior as of Monday.

Port Angeles student representative Maizie Tucker said Tuesday that it’s difficult to stay motivated with remote learning.

“Right now, we have too many students on the brink of giving up. We need to see some motion in the right direction,” she said.

“Students are social creatures. People get their motivation from other people,” student Laken Folsom said.

The effects of COVID-19 dominated much of the discussion as district representatives discussed how they offer educational services in light of the virus. School officials and students were unanimous that they want to return to in-person instruction and that they believed they could conduct it safely.

Some schools such as Port Angeles and Sequim have been forced to largely shut down for the time being to in-person schooling, while others such as Crescent have been able to maintain in-person instruction with no cases occurring in their schools.

“If we want economic recovery, our kids have to be in school,” said Quillayute Valley Superintendent Diana Reaume.

Reaume said while Forks has been able to offer in-person learning, some students and parents are choosing remote learning until the virus is more under control.

“Some are doing OK [with remote learning]. Others are really suffering,” she said.

Crescent is one district that has successfully stayed with in-person learning.

“We feel good school can be done safely,” said Dave Bingham, Crescent superintendent.

Joey Currie, Crescent School Board member, said his biggest frustration with the state is the feeling that local districts don’t know what the long-term state policies are going to be with COVID-19.

“The struggle is living in limbo … day-to-day. We would like to see across-the-board support for the science side of this — that schools are safe,” Currie said.

While there’s been mixed results with students and remote learning, pretty much everyone said the current situation has been universally difficult on teachers.

“Teachers are so fatigued right now. I’m probably not going to be able to find summer school teachers,” Reaume said.

“The fatigue is real,” agreed Port Angeles Superintendent Marty Brewer.

Tharinger said the comments from students was powerful and compelling. However, he pointed out, “the challenge is the virus continues to write the script.”

Chapman agreed that students need to get back in class. He said his kids played sports in school and that athletics is key in keeping many kids to be motivated in school.

Sports are not scheduled to return until February, though the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) issued a statement Thursday that hopes for direction from the state for renewing sports in light of Inslee’s recent announcement.

Jim Stoffer, Sequim School Board member, pointed out that communities and businesses all have to chip in to get schools back open again by helping to lower infection rates.

“People need to drop the political rhetoric. It will take everyone working together,” he said.

School representatives said that, as far as funding, they can get through the year, but they had concerns about next year with the lingering effects of COVID-19 on the state’s and the districts’ budget reserves.

“We can do it this year,” as far as dipping into reserves, Bingham said. “But we can’t do it forever.”

Van De Wege pointed out that there are many needs in the state and that schools do have their funding protected in the state constitution.

“Understand that you’re in a much better spot than some other folks,” Van De Wege said.

Van De Wege added the state has a large reserve, but it will be eating into that reserve because of the costs of the pandemic.

“After this [budget] cycle, rest assured, the state will have no savings left,” he said.

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Sports Editor Pierre LaBossiere can be reached at [email protected].

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