Back to school?
Back to school?

La Conner students have done plenty of homework this year, due to the remote learning format adopted to curb spread of COVID-19. 

School officials have been loaded with homework, too. Their assignment: develop a plan to safely transition students to in-person instruction. 

A Feb. 1 start was part of the framework  unanimously approved by school board members during a 75-minute Zoom meeting Monday night. 

La Conner Schools’ Director of Special Programs Andy Wheeler outlined the plan, which had been discussed at length during a three-hour board retreat session last week. 

There are plenty of moving parts, revolving around new Washington state school re-opening guidelines. Phased-in in-person hybrid instruction is allowed for elementary school and high-need students, in groups of 15 or fewer, in counties reporting 350 or more COVID-19 infections per 100,000 population over a 14-day period. 

The threshold for secondary schools is 200 cases per 100,000. 

Skagit County’s case rate stood at 383 per 100,000 population for the period before Jan. 4, just three days before the school board retreat. 

La Conner’s plan has lower elementary-grade students returning to campus four days a week for 2 1/2 hour instructional blocks. Students above first grade level will gradually come back to school through February. 

Students will attend class in the morning or afternoon on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays on an “AM/PM schedule.” 

Wednesdays are for teacher planning and preparation, campus custodial duties and related tasks. 

For families preferring their students remain home, distance learning will still be available. 

“We will offer remote learning as an option at least through the end of the year,” Wheeler said. 

Middle and high school students will return once COVID-19 case rates are significantly reduced. 

“When we reach 200 (cases),” interim Superintendent Rich Stewart said at the retreat, “we would want to look at bringing the secondary back.” 

Wheeler said much staff and public input has gone into crafting the district’s back-to-school plan. Key matters related to logistics, sanitizing, and transportation will be further fine-tuned – and additional input sought – in the days ahead, said Wheeler. 

Wheeler and La Conner Elementary Principal Heather Fakkema toured Conway Schools last week, where students have already returned to campus, and gleaned insight from teachers there. 

“It was a really good visit,” Wheeler told board members. “Now we have someone to bounce ideas off of.” 

Board members have expressed concern that students are losing ground academically this year by not being able to receive in-person instruction. 

“I see so many students struggling and falling behind,” Board Member Amanda Bourgeois said during the retreat. 

Board Member John Agen noted the challenge of building a thorough, detail-oriented back-to-school plan and communicating it to the public amid highly fluid conditions posed by the pandemic. 

“If we set a date,” said Agen, “it can be tentative. We can have a plan that’s not completely carved in stone.” 

Stewart said the plan reflects district commitments to student achievement and public health safety. 

“We’ve been exploring models to bring students back in the safest way possible,” he said. “Our goal is maybe we won’t be the first (to reopen), but we’ll be the best.”