Oak Harbor Christian School will have in-person classes five days a week this fall, unlike the hybrid model the island’s public school districts are following in light of COVID-19.
The K-8 private school is seeing a bump in enrollment this summer too, according to Principal Mary Beth Eelkema.
Eelkema said she interviewed 24 new families this summer compared to the 10 she interviewed last year. The school has about 70 students in total and class sizes range from 10 to 14 students.
“Some of them have referred that they want their children to meet in person, and they’re willing to go with the requirements of wearing a face mask and social distancing,” Eelkema said.
“School’s going to look different.”
In addition to the face mask requirement, the school plans for students to enter their classrooms through outside-facing doors. The school will also install air filters, implement a daily wellness check by parents, stagger recesses and space desks six feet apart, among other measures.
Classes won’t be intermingling this year.
Now that social distancing has become a requirement, the school has opened a previously unused classroom and hired a new teacher, “which is a wonderful problem to have,” Eelkema said.
The school pushed its start date back from Sept. 2 to Sept. 14 to provide staff with training and prepare the building for a new school year.
Middle school teachers Valerie Matheny and Lynne Evans each will have just 10 students in their classrooms this year, despite teaching three grades.
“We have half the amount of kids that other schools do, so we can fit them all in at the same time. If we had 20 kids, I don’t think we would be opening like this. If people were to hear that we’re opening like normal — well, we’re opening face-to-face because we have small class sizes,” Evans explained.
Kathy Miller is a school board member and was part of the group that developed the school’s reopening plan. She holds a master’s degree in education and taught at Oak Harbor Christian School for 13 years, she said.
“We have to go down a path of trying to see what the new norm is,” she said.
Miller added that she would feel comfortable sending her own daughter to school with the current plan in place.
Jennifer Trigg has children in the second, fifth and seventh grades at the school. Her oldest son previously attended the school but is enrolled in public school now that he is older.
Trigg said she supports the private school’s reopening plan.
“I am just thankful that they are opening up and they are willing to do everything they can, even though the public school is going virtual for the most part, or hybrid,” Trigg said.
Island County Health Services Director Keith Higman said the school had shown its safety plan to the county for review but stressed it was not submitted for approval.
Schools do need to have a safety plan, but it must be on file with the state Office of the Superintendent and Board of Education, not local public health authorities.
However, the private school asked for the county health official’s insight.
“Because their classrooms open up to the outside, they have the ability to keep kids in cohorts — some schools call it a bubble,” Higman said. “It’s where you keep a group of kids and their teachers separated from other groups at school for the entire day. It lessens the amount of time that a student would ever come into contact with another student.”
“We think they did a great job in their plan,” he added.
Like many other religious schools, Oak Harbor Christian organizes a chapel service each week.
Eelkema said she’s not certain whether chapel service will be held each week, though she believes the all-school activity would be important to build community since classrooms will be largely kept separate during other times.
The state’s guidelines for religious gatherings limit groups to less than 50 percent of the building’s maximum occupancy and require six feet of social distance between participants for counties that are in Phase 3.
“I don’t know if that guidance applies to a school setting,” Higman said.
There is a backup plan in the event the school needs to move to distance learning like it did last spring, along with all other schools in the state. If necessary, students will transition to Google Classroom, and Eelkema said that students will be trained on how to use it while in class. There would also be training for parents.
Eelkema said she knows that the school’s approach is not for everyone. Some families, typically in younger grades, have already pulled their children out of school in favor of homeschooling because they are concerned about their child wearing a mask all day.
“Kids are resilient,” she said. “I think parents are the ones who have more of a problem with the masks than our kids do.”
Eelkema said she is confident that the school’s reopening plan will keep children safe in the new year.
“I would say that our school, having thought this through and prayerfully considering what we felt was the best thing to do, has made this choice. I think we’re prepared.”