Bellingham Public Schools will reopen classes for kindergarten and first-grade students in November
Superintendent Greg Baker announced on October 15 that in-person classes will resume for kindergarten and first grade in November.
With guidance from the Whatcom County Health Department, the Bellingham School District has decided to move on to stages two and three of its Reconnect Plan, which outlines when and how to move toward normal school operations. Within these stages, kindergarten will return to in-person classes beginning on Nov. 2 and first-grade will return on Nov. 12.
According to the Whatcom County Health Department, schools can stay open as long as the county is in a moderate level of community transmission, with fewer than 75 cases per 100,000 people. If cases surpass 75, the health department may recommend a return to virtual learning.
“As I’ve said throughout this whole pandemic, things could change,” Baker said in a video announcement. “So what I’m saying today is where we’re at today, and we need to be ready to … adjust as conditions change.”
The option of online classes remains available for parents. However, if parents choose to continue online instruction, their children will likely be assigned to a new class. The new class will possibly be with a teacher and students from other schools, Baker said.
The school district is bringing the youngest students back first because they benefit the most from in-person instruction, Baker said.
This is because online learning does not allow for peer-to-peer learning, which is important for young students, said Marjella Dempsey, associate professor at Maynooth University School of Education.
“The thinking is that if we give them a screen they’re learning, but the reality is they’re not. What they’re doing is repetitive movements,” Dempsey said. “They can do those repetitive things without any cognitive change.”
According to a video released by the Bellingham School District, new procedures will be implemented to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Before school, parents will complete an assessment of symptoms and are instructed not to send their children to school if anyone in the household is experiencing any symptoms.
Family members will not be able to enter school buildings. Instead, staff members will greet the students and take them inside. Students will also be dismissed in staggered groups.
Inside the classroom, students will sit in marked spaces 6 feet apart with floor desks, while teachers walk around the classroom helping students individually instead of working in groups. The floor desks ensure that students will not touch each other’s workspaces or supplies. Masks will be required for students, parents and staff while at school, and there will be no medical or religious exemptions, Smith said.
“If they are not willing to wear a mask, we would offer them an alternative of continuing to do school from home,” Smith said.
Playgrounds and fields will still be open for the children during recess. They will be encouraged to stay 6 feet apart and the outside area will be divided into zones to ensure spacing.
In accordance with health department guidance, class sizes will be reduced as much as possible, Baker said. The exact size of the classes will vary depending on the school and grade level, but the target class size is 15 students, said Dana Smith, communications manager for Bellingham Public Schools.
Individual schools will conduct contact tracing if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, Smith said. However, deciding which actions to take after a positive test, such as who needs to quarantine or be tested, will be recommended by the health department on a case-by-case basis.
Anyone in close contact with an infected student or staff member would need to quarantine, but it is up to the health department to determine which individuals are considered close contact, Smith said.
Whatcom Unified Command is prepared to investigate any cases of COVID-19 in schools, and members will meet with school nurses periodically to check in, said Amy Cloud, public information officer for Whatcom Unified Command.
The Bellingham School District is offering multiple options for parents who are not ready to send their children back to school yet, Smith said.
These options include the Bellingham Family Partnership Program for homeschooling, as well as Bellingham Virtual Learning for online classes, Smith said.
Ella Mensch plans to send her son to his first grade class in November, but still has concerns and unanswered questions.
“I have questions about the logistical things,” Mensch said. “Like, what does lunch look like for the kids? Do they get to go to the library? Do they get to have PE?”
Her son has a connection to his current teachers and classmates that would be lost in a new online class, and his parents do not have the time or ability to homeschool him, Mensch said.
“After watching the videos and reading some information on the district website, comfortable isn’t the right word, but I don’t feel uncomfortable anymore,” Mensch said.