A teacher at the Lyle School District with his class. The district is modeling exceptional success with hybrid teaching during the pandemic.

Throughout the Columbia Gorge and across the nation, schools are grappling with the best and safest way to deliver educational services during a global pandemic. Many education staples such as in-person classroom learning and meal services that have traditionally required face-to-face interaction were no longer permitted early in the pandemic due to concerns over COVID-19 transmission. Essentially, education transformed to remote learning overnight, something few schools were prepared for.

By the end of the summer, Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee released a new framework for returning to in-person education, which allowed students and teachers to return to the classroom in small groups as long as COVID-19 remained low in the surrounding county. At that point, Klickitat County, whose population is under 25,000, had fewer than 200 recorded cases. The town of Lyle had a single recorded case, while Dallesport, a neighboring community served by the district, had seven, which were quickly contained.

To the Lyle School District reopening team, which included administrators, teachers, and support staff, bringing back small groups of students that needed the most support with distance learning seemed a logical and important first step.

The team worked closely with the county health department, maintaining a laser focus on state-required safety precautions as it developed a plan for hybrid learning. This involved small groups of students rotating through the school building for in-person instruction on select days each week and participating in class remotely outside of those specific on-campus hours. Before classes started, parents and students came to the school for pre-arranged mini-conferences with their teachers. They checked out new laptops and learned how to log in and where to find their classes. The process for participating in class is the same each day, whether the student is in the school or at home.

The reopening team developed protocols for monitoring the health of students and staff for return to school, as well. Staff self-monitor and attest via a written form that they are well each day. Students arriving at school receive a quick health screening, including a temperature check. Safety protocols also emphasize mask-wearing, hand-washing, and physical distancing throughout the day.

To support remote instruction, the district was able to purchase Smart Boards for every classroom in addition to the personal laptops, expenditures that were possible thanks to CARES Act funding. Teachers attended multiple days of training in using the devices and continue to train in Microsoft Teams software and best practices in remote instruction.

Unlike larger districts with more staff, Lyle doesn’t have the option of assigning one grade-level teacher to remote learning and another to on-site instruction, because there is only one teacher per grade level at the elementary level, and one per subject at the secondary level. Lyle teachers stepped up to the challenge and agreed to simultaneously instruct students physically in their classroom and those logged in remotely.

“While our goal is to keep students and staff learning in person as much as possible, our team is prepared to transition to remote learning quickly, if needed,” Superintendent Ann Varkados explains. “Using technology like Microsoft Teams for simultaneous in-person and remote instruction allows for less disruption if we need to pivot to online learning.”

In fact, on Sept. 14, less than a week after the start of the school year, Lyle School students and teachers proved that point by quickly moving to all-remote instruction when wildfire smoke led to a five-day halt to all in-person instruction in Klickitat County schools. By then, most students had at least one day of in-person instruction that involved logging in and using their devices. It was a crash course in live remote instruction, but by the end of the five days, teachers were expressing new-found confidence in their skills.

 With the county’s COVID-19 infection rate now even lower than on the first day, the school is gradually increasing the number of days students can be in school. On Monday, Oct. 5, all Kindergarten and first-grade students—both exceptionally small classes of seven or less—returned to the building full time. Additional grade levels through middle school will be phased in, with students in grades 2-8 coming to the building at least twice a week.

At the high school level, students’ individual needs and learning styles are guiding decisions about who should receive more on-site instruction. Students who lack adequate Internet access are especially high priority for attending school in person.

Lyle Education Association Co-President Cody Magill is excited about the learning model, explaining, “The adoption of this program puts teachers in a position to be more flexible. We can more readily tailor our approach for each student, addressing individual gaps by accessing resources in a manner that promotes equity. It puts us at the forefront of education moving forward.” 

Providing instruction under these circumstances, even in a small district, is not simple. Administrators in other districts have taken notice of what Lyle is doing. Principal Lori Smith recounts first hearing from a staff person whose spouse operates a daycare and sees first-hand how area districts are providing remote instruction. Lyle, she said, was “rocking it,” on par with another, much better-funded, Gorge-area school district. Since then, Smith has heard other positive comments and even fielded calls from administrators in other districts, asking about the school’s approach.

Nevertheless, parents’ fears around the pandemic and in-person instruction have hit Lyle hard, something else it has in common with districts across the country. The absence of 25 students means a quarter-million dollar loss to the school’s operating budget. Staff are eager to get the word out that great things are happening in Lyle, in hopes of reassuring parents who have been hesitant to enroll students this year. That could include parents who have been trying to homeschool their students or who have enrolled them in the larger, less personal remote learning programs, or Kindergarten parents who simply decided to wait out the year. For families who want to continue learning remotely, the district will accommodate them through at least the end of this school year.

The school is also accepting out-of-district transfers for all grades. Out-of-district parents must take responsibility for transporting their children to and from school. Call (509) 365-2211, extension 120, to learn more about enrolling.

“We can all agree that in-person is how kids learn best,” says Varkados. “I’m proud of our team for creating safe and sustainable practices for bringing kids back to school and encourage families to learn more about the good things happening at Lyle School District.”

—Deb Stenberg