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Washington schools to remain closed for rest of school year

Capitol Hill’s Stevens Elementary’s campus is taped off and closed (Image: CHS)

Washington school campuses will remain closed through the rest of the school year as the state’s districts do what they can to ramp up distance learning to finish the academic year.

“We simply can’t take the chance of reopening onsite instruction in this school year,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday.

“Your educators will continue teaching but it will look different than what you are used to,” Inslee told students Monday, asking young people to also do their part to help.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal foreshadowed the move last week when he said that K-12 school buildings throughout Washington could remain closed for the rest of the year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t know if we’re coming back to school this year and I want to be honest about that, Reykdal said. “I think you should expect to be in this distance learning model for quite a long time.”

Monday, he described the challenges and costs of cleaning a campus if students of instructors get sick and echoed Inslee’s concerns about continuing to try to slow the pandemic.

The decision “does call into question this fall,” Reykdal said, adding that state officials have begun planning how to approach the next school year.

Washington now joins more than a dozen states in closing its school campuses for the year, Reykdal said.

UPDATE: Here is Reykdal’s announcement of the closure:

In mid-March, Governor Inslee closed all public and private K–12 schools in our state through April 24. Today, he extended that directive and ordered all school buildings to close throughout the remainder of the 2019–20 school year.

We have more than 1.2 million students in our state who are impacted by this. Over 80,000 seniors may have attended their last in-person high school class without knowing it.

Just as our great-grandparents understood after two World Wars and the Great Depression, this generation will grow up knowing how to persevere in the face of challenges.

Especially during times of uncertainty, students need our support. They need grace, and structure, and routine. Even though the world may feel like it’s upside down, our students need to know that we will move forward.

These next two months will be tough. I won’t diminish that. However, learning must continue.

It will look different than we are used to. It will be more flexible, and it will evolve as we learn more and gain experience in the tools available to us.

Reykdal said the state is also working to obtain waivers of some federal requirements “in order to provide districts with much needed flexibility, as well as securing additional funding to support this continuous learning.”

As of Monday morning, Seattle Public Schools was still preparing to come back to school this spring, according to district spokesperson Tim Robinson.

After closing its campuses in March, the district under Superintendent Denise Juneau said it was focusing on meal programs and creating educational programming. Citing equity issues, the district was slow to roll out new remote education efforts. That shifted in recent weeks after new guidance from Reykdal at the state level. Local schools have been engaging in remote education including paper-based packets, individual videoconferencing, online learning via Schoology, and lots of email.

Monday, tech giant Amazon announced it was donating 8,200 laptops to the district.

The district’s educational programming also continues on SPS TV, which airs on Channel 26, the district’s social media accounts, YouTube, and on KOMO.

UPDATE x2: In a video statement, Juneau said the district was working to “hone its process” —

She promised more information in coming days regarding issues including graduation.

“There are no easy answers, there are a lot of unknowns, and every day brings new information,” Juneau wrote in an April 3rd letter to families. “Some families want six hours of schoolwork for their children, some want learning to be optional, and some families just want their children to be acknowledged and honored.”

Robinson said that while the district has preparation materials in place for emergencies, but the novel coronavirus pandemic is “unprecedented.”

Lowell Elementary Principal Sarah Talbot used one word last week to describe how she felt about any move to remote education for the rest of the year: “sad.”

“I miss seeing students and teachers healthy and happy in our building,” Talbot said in an email. “They make this job joyful, and it’s way less fun online. That said, I would never want to endanger the lives or health of any of my students or their families.”

Lowell, located on Capitol Hill, has two classrooms serving students who are “medically fragile,” making it particularly cautious about bringing kids back soon, according to Talbot.

Talbot notes that elementary schools, which generally discourage screen time, don’t have the same technological infrastructure already in place the way some middle and high schools do. It’s also “much more abstract” for young children to learn from online instruction, and she says there isn’t a ton of research on how best to teach kids aged 5 or 6 using technology.

The school had little time to prepare when it was forced to close as the COVID-19 pandemic was rearing its head in mid-March. Teachers had just five days — including a Saturday and Sunday — to create online classes. They’ve been connecting with students through online classes, phone calls, and even home visits in some cases.

But for some students without Internet access or a computer, this has proved difficult.

“Our biggest challenge right now is families who don’t have devices and families who live in situations where they can’t connect [to] WiFi,” Talbot said. “For example, families who may be living in their car or in a shelter that has slow, overloaded WiFi. Many of those families also have multiple students trying to access instruction on a phone or without any electronic devices.”

Those students have been receiving paper packets created by the district, but that might be all they have to learn from. To fill the gap, organizations like Team Read and the school’s parent teacher association have been sending books to children.

The state’s guidance up to now has been mostly left to the district’s and individual administrators to interpret. “If educational services are being delivered to students in any form, for the district to remain open, those services must be provided to all students, including students who don’t have access to technology at home and the continuance of a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities in accordance with their Individualized Education Programs (IEP),” Reykdal wrote in guidance provided at the beginning of the crisis.

In messages from Washington Middle School, for example, the school’s teachers recently began adding  “activities” to platforms like Schoology, “a social networking service and virtual learning environment” and privately held company.

“Please note teachers have been asked to continue communicating with families and students in support of academic work throughout the closure,” a message to parents about the new direction reads. “Specifically, they have been asked to communicate with families at least two times per week via Schoology, email, phone, or the typical way they connect with families throughout the school year. If you have yet to hear from your child’s teacher, please send me an email.”

How schools grade their students will also be an issue. In California where a school closure for the rest of the year was decided and announced last week, “school districts and charter schools are expected to figure out their system of grading — or to do no grading — in a way that doesn’t disadvantage students who lack computers, internet access or other resources they need to participate in distance learning,” the San Diego Union Tribune reports. Any new grading approaches also must not “negatively affect a student’s grade point average or eligibility for a special program, like Advanced Placement,” the state has said.

Meanwhile, Washington state education officials have already suspended standardized testing this year including the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) tests. For older students, many colleges and universities are suspending their use of tests like the SAT for entrance requirements.

Capitol Hill SPS parent and social equity advocate Yancy Hughes Dominick says that not only will students with poor access to technology be adversely affected, but also kids who simply might not have the space to do work or who don’t have a caregiver to help troubleshoot.

“I definitely think that moving quickly to online learning is tricky without a clear plan for addressing the students furthest from educational justice,” Hughes Dominick said in an email, noting that Black and Native American kids will be disproportionately impacted by this.

Lots of questions have come from students on how this might affect their graduation in the coming months, so high school counselors in Seattle have been asked to conduct check-ins with seniors starting in the end of March to develop individualized graduation plans, Robinson said.

“Our state Board of Education is poised to waive some of those credits for students who absolutely need that, but it does require a good faith effort,” Reykdal said Friday. “We can’t just put our pencils and pens down and say ‘Hey, we’re done,’” we gotta work through this.”


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