Colleen Smith/staff photo
Jennifer Johnston's third-grade class.

Island schools talk reopening strategies

For some island students, it’s been 11 months since they walked the halls of their respective schools. Now the public schools of San Juan County are reintroducing the community’s youngest residents to in-person learning.

“I just wanted to see students,” San Juan Island School District Superintendent Fred Woods said.

Woods was one of five panelists in a community forum about schools reopening hosted by the San Juan Islands Community Network on Feb. 23, the second school-related panel SJICN has hosted this academic year. Joining Woods was Orcas Island School District Superintendent Eric Webb; Lopez Island School District Interim Superintendent Carl Bruner; Shaw Island School District Board Chair John Bogert; and Kaleidoscope Preschool Director Amber Paulsen. The forum was moderated by former SJISD Superintendent Michael Soltman.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the rules for reopening businesses and schools have changed rapidly and repeatedly. Soltman began the forum by asking who the panelists have turned to for leadership.

“We take all that information, compile it together and we try to make a determination,” Webb said. “That has been a challenge at times.”

Reopening guidelines have been presented by a plethora of sources — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Washington State Department of Health, and San Juan County’s Public Health Officer Dr. Frank James. According to Paulsen, the requirement changes have varied from lasting for as few as four days to a handful of months.

“As those guidelines change, we aren’t always notified,” she said. “So that’s sometimes hard to keep up with because those changes can have significant implications to our programming.”

Kaleidoscope, located on Orcas, has been reopened since June 1, 2020, Paulsen explained. To ensure the safety of students and teachers, the preschool and care center has focused heavily on its outdoor program. It was the first licensed outdoor preschool in the nation and now outdoor learning has been encouraged by health authorities as a way to get children back to school.

“I kind of call it my COVID silver-lining. … So, [health officials encouraging the practice] felt really validating,” Paulsen said. “I really believe that COVID has done for outdoor education what we couldn’t have done in 10 years. It’s really important and it’s a good idea. At first, it was fun and ‘Give it a try.’ But now it’s become a focus. We’ve really embraced it.”

While Orcas and San Juan have both previously attempted reopening this past academic year, starting with the younger grades, Lopez has just begun to resume classes and Shaw has yet to welcome back students but it’s in the works.

“We really felt like we could bring students back safely,” Webb said.

Orcas did bring some students back to in-person learning in autumn until a positive COVID diagnosis caused the school to take a step back. On Jan. 19, OISD brought back kindergarten through second-grade as well as the Montessori public school students; third-graders on Feb. 1; and fourth- and fifth-grade on Feb. 22.

“I believe we’ve been doing it well since then,” Webb said.

On San Juan, the school first welcomed back younger students at the beginning of November until Thanksgiving break. Like Orcas, the district took a step back when case numbers began to increase in the community. Elementary and middle school students have since resumed in-person education, according to Woods, and high schoolers are set to return the second week in March, should all go according to plan.

Shaw has remained the most cautious.

“We have zero cases of COVID on Shaw and have not had any cases at all during the entire pandemic,” Bogert said, noting Shaw school’s reluctance upon returning to the classroom and adding that the sole kindergarten through third-grade teacher is at high-risk of COVID complications.

“And that really drives our decisions on when to reopen,” Bogert said.

Shaw is a small school with only two teachers, Bogert explained. He added that the goal is to have students return beginning March 12 in a “limited fashion.” He said the school will have outdoor classes as often as possible.

LISD’s interim superintendent began in January and is new to education in an island environment. Bruner noted a challenge he’s observed islanders have strong opinions. Beliefs that are not always homogeneous.

“There are many things that are unique about [island education] and many, many of those things are positive,” Bruner said. “You have some people who think you’re foolish and uncaring if you try to bring students back. And you have people who think you should have bought students back six months ago.”

Until February, Lopez students were attending class entirely remotely. The school district began welcoming kindergarteners back on Feb. 23, first-grade began shortly thereafter, second- and third-grade are starting “soon,” with the remaining grades to follow.

Students, parents, teachers and the community-at-large have all had opinions on the speed at which the island schools are reopening. Paulsen noted that early on it was apparent not everyone would be pleased with Kaleidoscope’s decisions regarding the pandemic.

Students are excited to return to class, however, Webb said.

“They’re beaming, they’re smiling from ear to ear, they’re so ready to get back into that classroom,” Webb said, noting that the smiles come from behind masks, of course.

The pandemic has brought about the dawning of new, independent learners, as well, Webb explained. The question now, he continued, is how to keep that momentum going.

“That’s very important to us,” Webb said, adding that a frequently heard phrase from him lately is, “Never let a good pandemic go to waste.”

While some students’ education progression has suffered from distance learning, the local superintendents said they’ve observed several students thriving, but each child is different, which also must be taken into consideration.

“When we make decisions we try to take in the totality of all the students,” Woods said. “We’re part of the community and we want to serve our kids and families the best that we can.”

To watch the full forum, visit https://www.sjicn.org/post/san-juan-county-schools-covid-19-response-forum-2-spring-2021.

“It was quite a year to become a superintendent,” Woods said.