Chimacum schools likely to shut down in-classroom learning until next year, other districts may follow

Posted 11/19/20

Chimacum schools will likely go to all remote-learning because of the ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases in Jefferson County, Chimacum Superintendent David Engle told the school board at Wednesday's …

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Chimacum schools likely to shut down in-classroom learning until next year, other districts may follow


Chimacum schools will likely go to all remote-learning because of the ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases in Jefferson County, Chimacum Superintendent David Engle told the school board at Wednesday's meeting.

Engle said he was meeting with county health officials Friday along with other school district superintendents for an update on the impact of COVID-19.

He added that the jump in local coronavirus cases will probably prompt schools in Port Townsend and Quilcene to abandon in-person classes for students. Though a bit less likely, Brinnon may also switch to remote learning.

Schools in Jefferson County have been one of the rare exceptions across the state, where students returned to classrooms in the fall.

Chimacum has been using a hybrid model, with students arranged in cohorts, with instruction being a blend of online learning and in-person classes, depending on the day of the week.

Engle said it was a tough decision to make.

"It's one of the more difficult decisions I've had to make since I have been here," he said. 

The pivot to remote learning needs to happen Friday, Engle said, pointing to the rising COVID infection rate in Jefferson County.

"It's climbing day by day," he told the school board.

There have been 35 new cases of COVID-19 in the county in the past 10 days.

"We're well positioned to make the pivot," Engle said on full online learning.

"We've been in touch with our students; we've had a chance to prepare them for this eventuality.

This transition will be much less jarring than it has been in the spring when the pandemic first set in."

Engle said he has been also talking with staff about the possibility of shutting down schools as the trend of rising infections has continued.

"It should not be a big surprise to anybody. But nonetheless, it's a major decision," he said.

Engle said the move to online learning will stretch into the next year.

"My hunch on this is that we will be in the remote-learning mode through the holidays," Engle said.

There will probably be a major spike of COVID in the community following Thanksgiving, then more after the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

"There's likely to be a major spike in the community four or five days after Thanksgiving, even if our community behaves itself," he said.

There will be a spike as people travel, mix with others, and expose themselves to people infected with the disease during the upcoming holiday.

"Then we have Christmas," he added.

"We're in for a bumpy ride for the next six, seven weeks," Engle said.

The Chimacum district won't try to keep schools open as outbreaks continue, and staff, students and classrooms quarantine, and people fall ill.

The plan instead, he said, is to "ride this storm out" and stay in remote learning.

"We've reached that tipping point," the superintendent told board members.

Engle plans to meet with students Monday and Tuesday, with classes ending Tuesday.

If Friday's meeting with health officials shows increased cases of infections, the decision to shut down in-person classes will be made Friday afternoon.

"All the good science and data out there says we're in a dangerous elevation of infection rate. I don't want to be exposing staff or students or families ... through the school system, because we have been the safest place for kids and people to be, actually, in the community," Engle told the board.

"But now that we have widespread community infection going on, it's likely to start intruding on our programs and what we're doing as a school system," he said.

"I'm not holding out a lot of hope for Friday to dawn and hear that everything's back to normal," Engle added.

The decision was not welcomed by every school board member.

"I'm very disappointed," said Board Member Mickey Nagy.

He said four days of notice to parents was not enough, and said enrollment would take a hit.

Nagy criticized members of the teaching staff and said that while some were doing a great job of teaching students remotely, others weren't. 

Nagy added that some parents had to quit their jobs to stay home with their children when the pandemic started.

Some teachers were "passing the buck" to parents, Nagy said, "and we are sitting here paying them $100,000-plus a year."

Nagy said the district needs to get rid of those teachers, and put more students in the classrooms of those who are more effective at teaching remotely.

He also complained that COVID tests "are highly inaccurate."

Nagy noted an NFL team that had 75 players who tested positive, then tested negative.

"Elon Musk took four tests. Two said he was positive, two said he was negative," Nagy said, referring to the founder of Tesla (and one has courted much medica controversy by spreading misinformation about the coronavirus and has been a critic of COVID lockdowns).

"We've got hypochondriacs in this county," Nagy added. "Where thousands have gotten tested because, 'Oh, my gosh, I might have COVID.' And how many actual cases do we have?"

There have been more suicide deaths in Jefferson County than deaths from the coronavirus, he said.

"This is our opportunity to lead and I think we are taking a very pitiful response here," Nagy said.

"This has turned into a political issue and you all know it. We all know it.

"The extension of the COVID was tied to the fact that the presidential election is uncertain right now. That date exactly matches the electoral delegate date," Nagy continued.

Nagy said when Gov. Jay Inslee closed schools, it was because there was a national emergency.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, he added, "we didn't cancel school."

Engle said the district was responding to the pandemic alone.

"I think what we're doing right now is an emergency response to a medical reality that can't be played with," Engle said.

"I don't want to be a superintendent that has the first fatality of a staff member because we are in a community that has a sky high infection rate," he said.

"I don't think it's brave leadership to put a whole system at risk," Engle added. "We can do a much better job online. And we will be striving to do that."

The public has to help.

"We really depend on the community to get its act together in the next couple of months," Engle said. "This is community driven. Our kids are really minority players in this and they're the victims." 

"I feel bad. There is no good option for us right now," he said.