Battle Ground schools set to start the year fully online

Under the proposed plan, in-person classes wouldn’t start until Phase 4

BATTLE GROUND — Ending months of speculation, Battle Ground Public Schools appears set to start the 2020-21 school year with all of its 13,000-plus students learning remotely.

The CASEE Building, home to Battle Ground Public Schools Administrative offices. File photo
The CASEE Building, home to Battle Ground Public Schools Administrative offices. File photo

Superintendent Mark Ross announced his recommendation during a work session for the Board of Directors on Tuesday evening.

“This has been one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make,” Ross said. “This is a very difficult and actually emotional decision for me to have our kids start the school year remotely.” 

If approved by the full board, classes would begin for most students on Sept. 2, fully online, at least through Phase 3. In Phase 4, the district could begin hybrid learning, with students attending a building up to twice a week.

As recently as last June, district officials had been planning for the hybrid learning model, even as they realized that a worsening of the COVID-19 outbreak could force them to retreat.

“We’d been told to expect at some point that we may have to pivot back to remote learning,” said Denny Waters, the district’s deputy superintendent of public instruction. “Especially as we entered the fall and the winter, with flu season and everything that could potentially go on.”

So, Waters says, the district continued to plan for what Distance Learning 2.0 might look like, and how they could improve on the experience following the closure of schools last March.

“We’ve had a substantial investment in remote learning infrastructure that supports internet connection,” Waters said, “And we’ve gotten additional training and best practices that we’re making available to all of our teachers, and all of our staff.”

Based on feedback from parents, students, and teachers, Waters said the district is also working to streamline their educational apps and tools, as well as getting feedback from educators on how they believe students can best learn through a virtual environment.

“We believe that we’ve streamlined that enough to help us be very successful when we try this again in the fall,” he said.

The district has also ordered 2,200 new Chromebooks to distribute to students who need a device to learn on. Some of those will replace older, outdated models.

“We’ve invested in a number of hotspots and cell service enhancers, so that families can have an internet connection,” Waters added. “In our environment, where we’re so diverse in terms of geographic area, and we have some dead spots, we found that 95 percent of our families had no issue with internet service or devices.”

That still leaves approximately 650 students who don’t have reliable internet, Waters noted, which is something they’re working to figure out.

“I think that, overall, we did a really good job with the hand that we were dealt in the spring,” he told the board. “I think our teachers and our entire staff stepped up. But there were things that were going against us.”

With the COVID-19 situation changing dramatically in the past month, the district did a follow-up survey. 

Nearly 7,500 students were represented, down slightly from more than 9,000 in the previous survey.

About half of respondents said they would feel comfortable sending their students back to a building in Phase 2, which is where Clark County is now. Another 18 percent said they would prefer to wait for Phase 3, and just over 9 percent said they wouldn’t feel comfortable sending their student back to class until a vaccine is available.

The district did not ask how respondents felt about having students return to a building full-time, since that was not expected to be an option prior to a vaccine being widely available.

Just over 68 percent of respondents said they would prefer a hybrid model, with students returning to classes part-time. Nineteen percent said they would prefer a more comprehensive remote learning option. Just under three percent indicated they would not be attending public school in any form next year.

Responses were significantly different when it came to educators.

The 1,349 respondents there represented 852 certificated staff, and 497 classified staff. Just a quarter of them said they felt safe returning to a building in Phase 1 or 2, while another 20 percent said they would prefer to wait until Phase 3.

Just over half said they would prefer the hybrid learning model, while 49 percent wanted to stick with comprehensive online education.

Those numbers varied significantly when broken down between certificated and classified staff. Nearly 68 percent of classified staff preferred at least some in-person learning, compared to only 41 percent of certificated staff.

A total of 170 educators also responded that they have a medical condition they believe puts them at higher risk from COVID-19.

That, combined with the requirements for quarantine for anyone who tests positive, along with their close contacts, made it highly likely that the district would experience disruptions throughout the school year if educators and students returned to class, said Ross.

“We are a district of 13,000 students, 18 schools, 1,600 staff members,” he said. “The likelihood of continual closing either of a classroom of quarantining students, potentially closing a building, would probably be very real for our schools and our district.”

While younger children are not considered to be at high risk from COVID-19, recent studies have shown anyone over the age of 10 can be a carrier and infect others.

Even with the low risk, Ross noted, studies have shown up to a quarter of one percent of students could still be at risk of dying from COVID-19.

“In a district of 13,000 students, that’s 26 students,” he said. “So, I guess, I’m not sure that if that’s an acceptable loss to me.”

Asked how the district hoped to improve on the impression some families had about a lack of feedback or interaction from teachers, Waters said some of that was a product of the policy decisions reached as part of the school closures in March.

“The lack of engagement that we may have seen in the spring was a two way street,” said Waters, noting that students were essentially locked into the grade they had when schools were closed. While they could improve, they couldn’t do worse than they’d been doing. 

“That was a difficult situation for educators,” Waters added. “If a kid had a B, and a kid was happy with a B, or a kid had an A and was happy with the A, they didn’t want to do any work — they didn’t engage. If they knew they were going to pass, they didn’t engage.”

Waters added that the district needs to do a better job of giving teachers simpler goals for students, and making sure those are communicated with parents and students, as well as following up if a child is falling behind.

“We are going to try to bring consistency to the model,” he told the board, “and that consistency is going to be about accountability. Accountability to ourselves, but also accountability to our families, and accountability to the kids that we serve.”

Those details are still being worked out, he admitted, but they hope to have a better plan fully in place within a few weeks.

“We heard from parents that they were saying, ‘Hey, we’re overwhelmed,” Waters said. “‘We’re overwhelmed by the number of emails, we’re overwhelmed by the number of phone calls,’ and we are looking at developing a system.”

Sydney Cordon, who recently joined the board as a new student representative, said her preference would obviously be to attend classes in person.

“But, I guess I’m worried about my health by the choices of others,” she added, “and how some people may take this seriously, and some students may think that, you know, this isn’t real.”

Addelyn Smith, the board’s other student rep, said as a member of a large family, she’s well aware of how stressful online learning can be.

“Taking it step by step is a good idea, considering that we’re not completely sure of what’s happening right now,” she added. “All I hope for is that, eventually, there will be a time where we can all come back to school, whether it be hybrid or not.”

“I’m … not really comfortable making decisions for teachers deciding whether to go back into a classroom or not,” added Board President Troy McCoy. “I’m comfortable making a decision for myself and potentially taking that risk, and we can argue about what percentage that risk is, but I’m not really comfortable making that decision for somebody else.”

The board will need to make a final decision on the plan for the upcoming school year at their meeting on Aug. 10.