Kelso students have a confirmed return date to in-person learning after Monday night’s board meeting, as long as local COVID-19 cases stay low.
However, low enrollment is projected to cause a $2 million deficit in the district budget, the Kelso School Board also heard.
The board unanimously approved a timeline to bring students back to a hybrid classroom/remote model that has K-2 students back in physical classrooms two days a week starting Sept. 28.
Superintendent Mary Beth Tack said the plan is based on heath guidelines and reminded the board that the situation can change at any time, forcing the district to pivot and return to remote learning.
Under state health guidelines, districts can have some in-person learning as long as there are less than 75 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the county over a two-week span, and can move to fully in-person learning for younger grades once the county drops below 25 cases per 100,000 people. As of a Sept. 8 report, Cowlitz County is at 36 cases per 100,000 people. Returns to school are not tied to county phases, which Gov. Jay Inslee has paused.
“It’s tough work and challenging work, but I think we’ll be able to get there,” Tack told the board.
Under the timeline, on Oct.5 grades 3-5 will return to classrooms once a week. That group will bump up to two days a week on Oct. 19, when grades 6-8 come back one day per week. If all goes well and cases stay low, then on Nov. 9 all students K-12 will be in person two days a week.
The days when students are not physically in classrooms, they will do remote learning from home, Tack said. She said higher grades will return one day a week to start to help work out the new systems that need to be in place for safe in-person learning without overwhelming staff.
Groups will be divided by last name, with last names A-K attending in person Monday and Tuesday and last names L-Z attending Thursday and Friday, once students enter the two-day per week model.
When students are in the one day per week stage of re-entry, last names A-E will be in school Mondays, last names F-K in school Tuesdays, last names L-Ri in class Thursday and last names Ro-Z in the building Friday.
In all stages of the hybrid model, Wednesday would be reserved for students that teachers identify as needing extra help.
Agenda documents noted that families who have children with multiple last names can work with the schools to coordinate schedules.
The board also heard reports on summer learning, athletics for the upcoming year, a preliminary enrollment report and a report on the progress the district is making toward reopening schools.
Overall, school officials said summer learning went well. Director of Special Programs Heather Ogden said out of the nine elementary students and 12 secondary students offered extended school year programming, six elementary students and five secondary students attended.
ESY programming is for students on individualized education plans. They got three-hour per day in-person lessons that Ogden said allowed students to “actively re-engage” with school.
Kelso High School Principal Rob Birdsell said 88 students enrolled in high school summer school, which focused on juniors who may have fallen behind last spring. However, he said there was not a very high attendance rate and only 34 courses were recovered. Last summer, 42 courses were recovered.
Over the summer, Homelessness Liaison Nancy Baldwin said the district served 152 students weekly and expects those numbers to rise as the pandemic continues. She said she also helped 198 families get extra food stamps benefits.
“We’re seeing families that have never experienced food insecurity before,” Baldwin told the board. “It’s challenging for them to accept this help, but we’ve got our hands around them now and are really walking this road with them.”
Athletic Director Jason Coburn said heath department sanctioned summer sports workouts were popular with students and coaches, and nearly every sport was represented. However, he said the delayed sports seasons will be hard on athletes.
Even though the Kelso Virtual Academy enrollment has ballooned, making it the second largest school in the district with over 1,000 students, Chief Financial Officer Scott Westlund told the board enrollment is projected to be down about 225 to 250 students next year. That equals a roughly $2 million reduction in state funding. State funding is based on enrollment.
Most of those lost students are in elementary school, Westlund said. For the families that removed their previously enrolled students and gave a reason, 86 went to homeschool and 31 to an online school that was not Kelso Virtual Academy, he said.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Westlund said, predicting tough budget cuts to close the gap.
In terms of returning to school, Westlund said the district has plenty of face masks and shields, a thousand gallons of hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies.
Director of Teaching and Learning Kim Yore said teachers have gotten many hours of training in online teaching, and the biggest issue is “troubleshooting the tech.”
Ogden added that small groups of special education students will return to classrooms next Monday.
And Director of Human Resources Holly Budge said the district is finalizing plans for training remote substitutes and looking at returning people from furlough on a site-by-site basis.
In other business, the board:
• Heard first readings of six new policies that clarify how many credits students can recover when taking online courses in English, math, science, social studies, the arts and health and fitness.
• Heard a first reading of an updated absence policy. The new policy includes remote learning and COIVD-19 considerations.