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As has been the case across the nation, the decision by the Ellensburg School Board to return students to in-classroom instruction generated a mix of excitement, concerns and questions.

The Ellensburg School Board unanimously agreed at its meeting Wednesday it was time to start in-person education on Oct. 5. ESD will be using a hybrid, “A”, “B” model, that splits students into two groups so only half are taking classes in-person at a time.

The district has been in contact with Kittitas County Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Larson and has been keeping an eye on the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000. The county has recommended schools only start a hybrid model only if the cases per 100,000 stay below 75. Kittitas County is currently at 66 per 100,000.

More than 15 people in the community spoke during the public comment section of the reopening plan. While some people were in support of returning to in-person education, there was criticism that the district was rushing the decision.

Jeff Hashimoto, Ellensburg High School teacher, said he is excited to have students back in-person. Online learning has been difficult for many teachers including himself, but it’s important the district knows what it’s doing, and they need to make the transition to in-person education smoother than the transition to online learning.

“We had one month to plan the online (learning), and the rollout had a lot of difficulties … there were implementation bumps,” Hashimoto said. “As we go to hybrid, if we have implementation bumps, then that could result in people in our community dying.”

Morgan Middle School teacher and teachers union President Donna Grassel said teachers and students have just started to get used to remote education and making this change so soon was pulling the rug out from under them.

“I’m wondering what would happen if our numbers bounced back up because I don’t think it’s the best thing for student learning to be bouncing back and forth between these two models,” Grassel said.

Grassel also pointed out the irony of the school board deciding it was safe to bring students back to in-person learning, while they were still meeting through video chat.

WHAT IF SOMEONE GETS SICK?

One issue that was brought up by a parent as well as board member Dan Shissler was, the district doesn’t seem to have a concrete plan in place if someone in a school gets sick.

Superintendent Jinger Haberer said “the short answer” to that concern was that if someone in ESD were to contract COVID-19, the district would “collaborate very closely together with the department of health.”

However, surveys conducted by the district have shown the majority of the ESD community supports a return to in-person education. Morgan Middle School teacher Joan Smith is fully in support of bringing students into the classroom. As a special education teacher, Smith has had her students back in-person since the start of the school year.

“It has been the most amazing thing ever to have students back. The smiles on their faces has made every day absolutely amazing, however they are still very isolated in the special education world because they don’t have any general education peers around them,” Smith said.

Smith said she has had three kids go through ESD, with the youngest in his senior year. She said he doesn’t like the remote education, and as a senior, he and his other EHS peers are old enough and mature enough to keep their masks on throughout the school day.

A student at EHS spoke during the meeting. Junior Madison Kennedy explained what it’s like to be a student during remote education.

“it is very unfair to be living our high school lives through a computer, when it should be the best time of our lives,” Kennedy said. “It also hard for me to understand why other kids in our county and other states get to go to school but we can’t.”

She also pointed out the survival rate for younger people is “sky high.” She said she understands how the “older generation” is at risk, but she believes they can still quarantine and remain safe.

During remote education, she has been helping her younger siblings with their schoolwork. She said making sure he gets his work done is a difficult job for the both of them, and she can only imagine what it’s like for students who don’t have an older sister who can help.

Board Member Jason White said the district created the Virtual Academy for a reason. Any student or teacher who did not feel comfortable returning to in-person education could sign up to take all their classes online. He mentioned there are counties bordering Kittitas who do not have as much control over the pandemic as Kittitas, but they are still having in-person education. He doesn’t see how it’s fair to ESD students to keep them away from class.

“People that were in hybrid, knew this could happen. Teachers knew this could happen,” White said. “We expect teachers to be innovative, they are paid to do that, so we want them to do that. I don’t feel like we have any other choice, we need to move forward… I think if we postpone this, we are only going to cause more damage.”

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