More than 600 community members attended an informational webinar hosted by the Mercer Island School District (MISD) Thursday, July 30 that confirmed all schools district-wide will begin remotely in the fall.
The event, which was held over Zoom and began at 5:30 p.m., shed light on what parents and students should expect for the 2020-‘21 school year, which begins Sept. 2. Ahead of the webinar, Superintendent Donna Colosky had announced that she was recommending school on Mercer Island begin fully remotely in the fall.
Attendees submitted questions to the district through Zoom; representatives said that if they were not answered during the meeting, responses would be shared in a document in the future.
During the event, district personnel reiterated their overall values, vision and mission, and their goals for the upcoming school year.
They also went back over the different types of “learning days” families might expect to see enacted throughout the year. The learning days are built to move forward on a continuum as COVID-19-related guidelines potentially loosen throughout the school year. They include a red learning phase (entirely remote), orange (a hybrid of remote and in-person), yellow (in-person but with numerous health mandates and restrictions) and green (essentially a return to normal).
District representatives said that when they decided that schools would start in the red learning phase, they were motivated by the recent King County Department of Health public statement of support for remote learning; Department of Health guidance; the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI); and the recent regressions in Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start state reopening following an increased case rate.
Concerns from community members were also a significant factor, said Assistant Superintendent of Learning Services Fred Rundle.
“We’re listening to you,” he said. “We know that it’s not unanimous — that not everyone feels the same that we should be in the red learning model. But we started to hear from a number of community members who, as the numbers started rising again in King County and reaching the levels that they are and not regressing, there started to be great concern, and we started to hear from students as well.”
Representatives noted that while the plan right now is to begin the school year remotely (with some opportunities for in-person support), things could “immediately change to a more restrictive phase if the superintendent or state deem necessary.”
When school begins, attendance at the elementary level will be taken daily; in middle and high school, it will be taken on a period-by-period basis.
Although special grading policies replaced traditional customs during the emergency-closure period, which lasted from March until June, the fall reopening will see a return to previous grading policies.
“We’re not here to penalize students for the circumstances that they find themselves in but rather to provide them with feedback about their learning progress, how they’re making progress and engaging in the classroom,” said Randle. “We will continue to adjust this, but our grading next year is going to look more similar to how it did in the past than it did in the spring.”
Every three weeks, the district will regroup to decide whether to stay in the red learning phase or to move forward in the continuum. In the middle of the last week in the three-week cycle, the district, collaborating with the Department of Health, will announce whether the current phase will be prolonged or if the community should expect a change.
In the presentation, it was clarified that while similar, MIonline, a newly introduced “alternative online remote option” for students, is not the same as the red learning phase and is its own distinct entity. It is, as characterized in the presentation, “a predictable, year-long or semester-long online model.” It’s fundamentally a secondary option designed for families who are not comfortable having students back in a given school’s building if, say, a yellow learning phase or another in-person-contingent phase is deemed safe.
“It’s kind of the seventh school in our district,” Randle said of MIonline, adding that families should first take advantage of red learning opportunities then inquire about MIonline.
Teachers have had additional online learning opportunities to prepare for the upcoming school year, said director of Learning Services Jamie Prescott.
She said at the webinar that over 100 educators within the district have enrolled in various online courses offered by institutes like the Global Online Academy and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, for instance. Whereas in previous years teachers might have done additional training in the days before the first day of school, for the 2020-‘21 school year teachers will undergo training between Aug. 10 and Sept. 1.
More consequential decisions about the 2020-‘21 school year will be made in August. On the 6th, the school board is hearing the drafted learning plan; on the 11th, the school board is hosting a “linkage session” with the community for further feedback. After the school board votes on the school year learning plan on the 13th, the final plan will be submitted to OSPI Aug. 19.