The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Tracy Thompson
The Times 

Waitsburg School District adapts to at-home learning

Learning packets went home with students on March 17, meal program continues


When Governor Jay Inslee delivered his 'Stay Home, Stay Healthy' declaration on March 13 announcing the closure of all public and private K-12 schools in Washington state, school leaders across the state were suddenly confronted with the problem of providing distance education to their varied students.

Waitsburg Superintendent, and elementary school principal  Mark Pickel reacted quickly, calling a stand-up meeting of all staff that afternoon. His elementary staff spent the upcoming weekend preparing “binders, packets and folders for six weeks of work,” which were handed out to the students on the last day of school on Monday, March 17.

Secondary teachers put together packets of work encompassing three weeks, and since that time, the educators of the district have found a myriad of ways to connect with their students. Kindergarten teacher Jamie Trump is in touch with her students daily with Zoom meetings, while preschool teacher Marcie Lannan has been reading stories to her students on a private Facebook group.

Secondary teachers have reached out to students through phone calls, text messages and email, whatever is comfortable for them to use, and whatever is accessible for the individual students.

Uncertainties about the safety of contact with the actual student paperwork has prompted the teachers to have the students turn their work in electronically, through screen shots of their work, or through the use of one of the many free scanning apps available for smartphone platforms iOS or Android. A poll taken district-wide found that only five families lacked internet access but did have cell phones to use to connect.

Pickel is considering providing computers and internet access to those who need it and has a vendor that he’s worked with who could get that up and running if need be. 

Speaking at the end of the day on Friday, April 3, Pickel declared himself “Zoomed out.” He has been busy keeping up with the other superintendents that comprise the 23-school Educational Service District that is headquartered out of Pasco. These thrice-weekly meetings are a good source of information about how other districts of varying sizes are approaching the distance learning challenges. He noted that the various school districts are “all over the map” with their approaches. “You’ve got districts like Walla Walla, where everybody has transitioned over to an online remote learning environment, to folks like us and Pomeroy and other districts who are somewhere in between.”

“But the bottom line is that it has to be equitable for everybody,” he said.

All teachers, as well as Pickel, have been working remotely from home, but he noted that the maintenance staff will have the school buildings ready for teacher access on April 6. They are eager to get in the building to prepare more learning materials, especially since the school closure has now been extended to the end of the school year, with Gov. Inslee’s recent announcement. 

“Teachers can go in the buildings, but we really want them to keep their footprint minimal. We’ve put nitrile gloves right by the main entrances of each of the three buildings—they will put gloves on when they go in, and they will then disinfect everything when they walk out the door. We want to keep it as clean an environment as we possibly can.”

Another concern of Pickel’s was making sure that every student that needs it has access to food. He estimated the district’s free and reduced-price lunch average is above 60 percent, and that Food Services Director Susan Wildey and her staff have been doing a “phenomenal” job providing on average 120 “grab and go” meal bags each day. Each bag contains a breakfast and lunch. The meals are available to every student 18 years old and younger. In addition to that, he notes that Pam Conover and Marcie Perkins at the Waitsburg Resource Center are also providing weekend meal kits to students each Thursday from 2 - 4 p.m.

Other issues the schools are wrestling with include grades and credit for graduating seniors. The graduating class of 2020 has 27 students and Pickel notes that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the State Board of Education are working through those issues.

Pickel said that he and other administrators are getting great support through bi-weekly Zoom meetings with State Superintendent Chris Reykdal.

The bottom line Pickel noted, is that the district is “making sure the kids are getting fed and the teachers are connecting with their kids.”

Ultimately, he said, “our staff really loves and cares for their students and our community will do whatever they need to do—they will bend over backwards to help our kids.”


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