Emillie Novak staff photo

San Juan School District: ‘We are here to help during COVID-19’

“Hang in there” are the words of encouragement San Juan Island School District Superintendent Fred Woods and Special Services Director Becky Bell gave to the community in a statement made recently.

The pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders brought unique challenges to the school district, according to Bell and Woods.

“We all became immediately dependent on technology,” the pair told the Journal.

School staff recognized everyone was learning how online classes would affect the student’s programs, Bell and Woods explained. Parents have worked hard to communicate their concerns with the district, they added. Some teachers have yet to meet their students face-to-face this school year, which has made teaching more difficult.

”The children are so excited to come back to school on [Jan.] 19, and to be with their classmates and meet their teachers,” Friday Harbor Elementary School Principal Casper Van Haalen said. “Some of whom, they have not met in person.”

Though students have not lined up to catch school buses every day, there is still a lot going on that the public doesn’t see, Bell said.

Decisions to reopen are based on the latest educational directives released on Dec. 16, 2020, and on Gov. Jay Inslee’s Road Map to Recovery, Woods and Bell explained. This means that schools will be reopening for in-person education based on the status of the pandemic in the county’s region.

“Currently, that regional number is trending around 350 out of 100,000 [residents infected] which, according to the governor’s reopening plan, places us in the high-risk category,” Bell and Woods said.

Bell added, “Our children are so precious to the whole community.”

Bell described what it is like when young children come to the district office for services because Head Start is closed.

“People come from all over the building to see these precious little children that we haven’t seen for so long because of COVID,” Bell said. “You can see how much the people in the community care about children, even people who have no children of their own.”

Bell and Woods explained that the school board evaluates the recommendations from local health officials and the current recommendation was to open for kindergarten through second-grade again on Jan. 19. The school is prepared to open to the remaining grades once it is determined to be safe to do so, they added.

In preparation for the reopening, each grade in the elementary school has two teachers, and they have the classes split so that half of the classes are online in the morning and the other half is in the afternoon, according to Van Haalen. He explained the children who are not in class will come to the school, line up, go through a simple screening process, and go to their classes with desks spread 7 feet apart.

Van Haalen added that the school has gone through training to meet all of the details of the requirements to be in compliance with the mandates from the state and county health departments.

In order to meet the needs of the children and families, as well as staff and teachers, due to COVID restrictions, many changes have been made in the school district. However, according to Bell and Woods, the district’s mission has not changed.

“The mission is to promote excellence through high expectations, superior instruction and academic content that is challenging and relevant; and to engage every student every day,” Bell and Woods said. “There was no norm for the impacts of moving an entire organization and the students within the organization to a completely different methodology of learning within a few weeks.”

Van Haalen gave Woods kudos for being quick to transition the district to online classes.

“Many schools just shut down,” Van Haalen said. “But Woods quickly transitioned to a hybrid class model that kept the momentum going.”

According to Bell and Woods, remote learning created particular challenges for students with disabilities; who were English language learners; affected by poverty or homelessness; or who have unique health conditions. They explained how the stay home orders affected the special services department who developed on-campus opportunities to increase learning and target students with unique needs.

“SJISD special services became a leader among districts offering what many others were unable to,” Woods and Bell said, adding that the district has a “counselor consortium” to help students and parents alike.

Bell and Woods highlighted the “can-do spirit” of the entire school community.

“We are proud of our successes,” Bell and Woods said. “It comes from the heart and the students are the reason we all entered, and stay in this profession.”

Bell explained how well the younger children have adapted to these new changes, adding that 3-year-olds have come into the district office wearing masks with Mickey Mouse or car and truck motifs

“They are so proud of wearing them and seem to have no problem,” Bell said. “For them, this is the way it has been one-third of their life.”

Bell and Woods stated that they want parents to know that their child’s public school is there for them. They added that parents are welcomed to reach out to the school’s staff for assistance.

“We are an amazing school because you are great, and your children are doing hard work. We are a leader among schools in the state and our programs offer many opportunities. But to serve you, we need to keep hearing from you,” Bell and Woods said. “Thank you for your work at home to keep your children moving forward in their education. Please take care, be well, and remember the African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.’ We can go far if we do this together.”