School board receives update on in-person learning, communications efforts

At the March 9 Edmonds School District Board of Directors meeting, Superintendent Gustavo Balderas (center) explains plans for in-person learning.

Just days after announcing plans to return more students to school buildings, the Edmonds School District is scrambling to change pace following a new directive from the governor to offer in-person learning to students at all grade levels by mid-April 2021.

“We know our students and families have been struggling for nearly a year, as it was March 13, 2020, when we were ordered to close all schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Superintendent Gustavo Balderas said in a statement to the news media Friday. “We will share more information about next steps to meet the governor’s mandate soon.”

Gov. Jay Inslee’s announced Friday he plans to issue an emergency proclamation that all schools in the state must offer an option for in-person learning for K-12 students by April 19. In a letter to families Friday, Balderas said the district will “do everything we can to meet the mandate.”

Per the governor’s directive, grades K-6 must have an in-person option by April 5 and grades 7-12 by April 19. Additionally, districts are required to offer 30% of instructional time on-site in classrooms/at least two days per week. While the district prepares to meet the April deadlines, district spokesperson Harmony Weinberg said officials still plan to implement Stage 2 on March 22.

During the Edmonds School Board’s March 9 business meeting, staff said the district would be moving into Stage 2 of its re-entry program, which would bring K-2 students back to in-person learning under a hybrid learning model starting March 22. Meanwhile, students in grades 3-12 will continue learning remotely.

More than 150 students across 20 sites have returned to classrooms so far, many of them enrolled in special education programs. Under Stage 2, all elementary-level students enrolled in intensive support and intensive emotional support programs would be back in classrooms, said Assistant Superintendent Dana Geaslen.

“Any of the self-contained groups in special education that were not served in Stage 1 are back at the elementary level,” she said.

Before returning students to school buildings, the district will return to the bargaining table with the Edmonds Education Association — which represents the district’s certified teachers — to negotiate. On Feb. 19, the district announced it had struck a deal with the association to move into Stage 2 of the district’s school building reentry plan.

Also during the meeting, Geaslen said there had been two changes to the district-union deal. First, Geaslen said developmental kindergarten will be served four days a week. Also, start times for in-person and remote learning have been amended to ensure students do not lose any instructional time.

Since beginning the 2021-22 school year remotely, many families have been imploring district leaders to allow students to return to in-person learning. However, parents have also been pleading to the board to find ways to allow students to keep the same teacher when returning to in-person learning. At the March 9 meeting, Assistant Superintendent Helen Joung said some students may be shuffled between teachers as they enter a new re-entry stage, but teachers will remain at their current school.

“This was a goal that we really wanted to maintain — we wanted teachers in specific buildings to serve kids in that building,” she said. “Yes, there’s some shifting between teachers, but to say that we have elementary schools serving their own elementary students is a tremendous, tremendous success.”

As students return to in-person learning, Assistant Superintendent Geaslen said the district will email staff and families an online health screening link (also called an attestation) that must be filled out before entering school buildings. She said that the district will be encouraging families to complete the attestations daily, to help them get into the habit and reduce the risk that students will forget.

By taking daily screenings, students can visit campus for reasons other than class — like athletics, student activities or accessing learning hubs — and staff will already have their results on file. Additionally, students will be issued a badge with a QR code to scan before entering the school building.

“We’re trying to make this smooth as possible by having it done,” Geaslen said.

Screenings will be available in eight languages and can be accessed on district-issued Chromebooks, email or contact information listed on Skyward.

In addition to providing daily meal kits to students and their families, students returning to campuses will also have access to free school meals.

Finance Director Lydia Sellie said students returning to in-person learning will be offered free breakfast and lunch, with no sign up or registration required.

The district will also continue to support students with remote learning hubs, Edmonds Hub (also known as eHub) is located in the former Alderwood Middle School building in Lynnwood and offers McKinney-Vento students and students in foster care a place to study and complete class work.

The site currently serves 57 students and has 18 to 20 students on site at a time, said Executive Director of Equity and Student Success Victor Vergara. The site also offers laundry services for students and their families and access to a food pantry, where they can grab groceries to take home. According to Vergara, the food pantry serves more than 30 families each week. Also, 90% of students arrive by bus and 100% eat breakfast and snacks while on-site, he said.

Since the hub opened, Vergara said teachers are reporting a drastic improvement in school work and attendance from students accessing it.

“All the students attending E-hub are seeing an improvement in zoom attendance, homework completion and all are accessing learning support,” he said.

At last count, staff reported identifying roughly 400 McKinney-Vento students in the district. However, Vergara said the number has become more fluid due to the economic impacts of the pandemic but anticipates the number will rise. During the discussion, Board President Deborah Kilgore asked if there are other students waiting to access the hub.

In response, Vergara explained that staff considered increasing the number of hubs. However, the district recently opened more remote learning hubs for English learners at secondary schools, which Vergara said are able to take on the extra students.

“At this point, numbers are looking really good,” he said. “Then, the combination between the school hubs and the McKinney-Vento E-hub, I believe we’re serving all kids there needing this support.”

Starting March 29, students will also be able to sign up for an enrichment activity, like band, orchestra, choir, art, STEM or outdoor exercises. Other courses included AP test prep sessions and study hall, for students who do not want to sign up for an activity.

Also during the meeting, Weinberg briefed board directors on the district’s efforts to keep families informed during the school year.

“Never has communications ever been more important than it has been in the last 365 days,” she said.  “One thing we’ve learned this year is (that) we want to be as transparent and clear as possible with the information we have right now.”

During her presentation, Weinberg highlighted online community forums held last August, which she said were essential to keeping open lines of communication with the district. Since the state banned large gatherings, the board began streaming meetings on the district’s YouTube page.

“At these board meetings, a lot of information is shared and with things changing so much it’s been critical to use this platform and be able to share it with our families at home,” she said.

Weinberg also briefed the board on Peachjar, a digital program that delivers information from schools directly to parents instead of sending it home with students and is a way for families to get information 24/7.

“It really allows our community members to share their information through Peachjar and it goes directly to our families,” Weinberg said.

The district has also been working to reach non-English speaking families and has begun translating the district’s bi-monthly newsletter into Spanish. Weinberg said it’s a small step toward proving more outreach to families from underserved communities.

“We’re really excited to have a process in place,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to get going on a new process to get it going.”

—By Cody Sexton

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