SEQUIM — With infection rates for COVID-19 rising on the North Olympic Peninsula, the Sequim School District announced Monday it was returning to remote learning.
The Port Angeles School District may not be too far behind, as Superintendent Marty Brewer has proposed closing schools to in-person learning if the infection rate gets above 200 per 100,000 population during a two-week period.
On Monday, there were 17 new positives for COVID-19 in Clallam County, raising the county’s infection rate to 186 per 100,000 during the past two weeks.
The county has had 75 positive COVID-19 cases since last Thursday.
Three Jefferson County school districts — Port Townsend, Chimacum and Quilcene — will return to all-remote instruction Nov. 30, and Brinnon announced Monday afternoon it will go to a hybrid system Nov. 30.
Sequim announced in a letter to parents and on its website that it will return to remote learning beginning Wednesday and will remain with a remote learning system until the end of the semester on Jan. 26 unless the infection rate in the county drops.
“We, the Board of Directors, the Leadership Team and I did not make this decision lightly and understand the hardships it places on our families,” said interim Sequim Superintendent Jane Pryne. “We believe transitioning to remote learning will allow us the time needed to return our students and staff to quality in-person learning safely.
“To be clear, we are not making this decision based on positive cases within our schools, or because (Clallam County Health Officer) Dr. (Allison) Unthank has said we must,” Pryne wrote. “It is an individual school district decision based on what is best for our students and staff safety and health.”
Pryne said the school district is also experiencing a shortage of substitutes for all positions such as teachers, paraeducators, transportation, food service and custodial/maintenance staffers.
“They just do not want to come in … for a variety of reasons,” Pryne said.
In addition to the move to virtual learning, the Sequim School District sent a letter to parents last Thursday stating a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19 and had close contacts with students and other staff on Nov. 16 and 17.
Those who were in contact were notified and are in home quarantine for 14 days.
Pryne wouldn’t comment any further on the letter Monday.
Meanwhile, the Port Angeles School District Board of Directors held an emergency meeting Sunday night to discuss Brewer’s proposal for establishing a threshold for returning to all-remote learning.
Brewer proposed closing the district’s schools if the infection rate hits 200 per 100,000, saying he would like to return to virtual instruction at the end of such a week.
Brewer sought the board’s approval for his recommendation, saying “this is a big decision.”
Board members declined a motion to explicitly approve the proposal, voting 5-0 against that idea. However, the board did give its verbal approval to Brewer to make the decisions he needed to make in regard to COVID-19, saying he already had that authority.
Brewer said he picked the 200 figure partly because there has been information coming from the state Department of Health that there may be changes coming soon in the classifications of low risk, moderate risk and high risk. Currently, low risk is considered an infection rate below 25 per 100,000, while high risk is 75 per 100,000 or higher.
The state is considering a change to the high-risk category to 175 or 200 per 100,000, Brewer said.
Brewer said part of the reason the Department of Health is considering the change is that there has been little spread of COVID-19 in schools around the state so far.
Port Angeles School District officials said during Sunday’s meeting that there is a potential for even higher increases in the COVID-19 infection rate if people, including district staff members, travel out of the area for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Brewer said 33 employees at the district have already needed to go into quarantine because of contacts with possible COVID-19 positive cases.
All the board members didn’t like the idea of closing the schools again to in-person learning, saying it was bad for students’ well-being and mental health. But some members acknowledged it may be necessary.
“I don’t think closing schools is a good idea, but I think it’s necessary. Cases are up,” board member Jacob Wright said. “I don’t think it’s good for the emotional health of the students.”
Board member Katie Marky wanted to keep kids in school if at all possible and thought the board should reconvene if learning had to go back to all-virtual.
However, Brewer wanted it clear that he had the authority to make that decision.
“Kids are bored, depressed, unmotivated,” Marky said. “Kids need to be in school.”
After a 90-minute discussion, board members gave their support to Brewer to make whatever decisions he needed to make.
“I think [Brewer] has the authority over the day-to-day operations,” board member Cindy Kelly said. “I don’t think we need to paint ourselves in a corner. We don’t need a motion.”
“Make the right call when you need to,” Wright said.
Crescent School District
Crescent School District made a minor change in its COVID-19 policy last week.
Parents received notice that, because of the increase of cases in the area, Crescent would be “pausing” adding any more in-person instruction beyond what the district is currently doing.
Sports Editor Pierre LaBossiere can be reached by email at [email protected].
Sequim Gazette Editor Michael Dashiell contributed to this report.