It’s a prospect that was almost unimaginable just months ago: Hundreds of thousands of Washington children won’t return to school buildings this fall.

With the summer’s rise in coronavirus cases, the state’s top leaders said it’s unsafe for the vast majority of students to learn in a classroom. Now, a new semester of school — at a distance — begins in a few weeks and districts are just beginning to send families details about what to expect.

Most districts spent summer in a mad dash, crafting and then scrapping plans to return to school buildings, and bargaining with teachers unions. This fall will look different, but in some ways, the same: with Washington’s districts using varying approaches. Some kids will get 12 hours of live instruction a week. Some will get 20. What everyone seems to agree on is they don’t want a repeat of spring.

BACK TO ‘SCHOOL’

This story is part of a series about what it’s like to start the school year during a pandemic.

The unpredictability of what this school year will look like is causing Diane Villaflor to consider leaving the Riverview School District, where two of her five children attend school. She’s one of thousands of parents bracing for the realities of more months of remote learning.

“They’ve all resolved to make it better in the fall and they’ve promised to parents that this is not going to be the same as it was in the spring,” said Villaflor, who lives in Duvall and is considering online and private school options. But when she called the district for details last week, the district couldn’t “tell me what the plan is, so I don’t have a lot of confidence that it’s going to go any better.”

After the pandemic shocked school districts into sudden drastic changes that seemed temporary at the time, schools were given grace to figure things out on the fly. Grading policies were relaxed. Districts’ reports to the state schools chief were optional. Standardized tests were canceled. Many schools, especially those serving high numbers of students living in poverty, spent considerable effort making sure basic needs — such as food — were met before even attempting instruction.

With limited data, it’s hard to say exactly how they did. Snoqualmie Valley School District kept detailed notes on the academic performance of kids in the spring, while on Vashon Island, plans to track engagement were “still in development.” State surveys suggest an uneven approach to instruction, meal distribution and child care. Teachers struggled, parents were frustrated, many students checked out.

State schools chief Chris Reykdal, who in June pushed for most schools to reopen, says he’s confident that schools are now better equipped to teach online. The expectations are higher: Districts will have to record daily attendance and meet the standard minimum number of instructional hours they were required to provide before.

“We’ve had time now to see what worked and didn’t,” Reykdal said. “Every day there should be something students have to be working on.”

The final three months of last school year were a testing ground for what has become a grander experiment with online learning. Teachers and administrators say they’re probing what worked, and mostly what went really, really wrong, as they imagine a path forward.

Several education researchers, teachers and policy leaders who recently spoke with The Seattle Times pointed to a few lessons:

● Educators shouldn’t lower standards, but may need to find different ways to help students meet academic goals.

● The strength of the relationships between educators and their students will determine the success of distance learning.

● Many students, such as young learners, those with disabilities and those learning English, lost out in the spring. Educators should prioritize getting those students up to speed in a way that’s engaging and encouraging.

● Traditional ideas about “best practices” were difficult to translate into online learning. But educators are finding creative ways to incorporate what we know works.

Many parents worry disparities that were cast into stark relief in the spring — lack of digital technology, inequitable access to basic services such as food and mental and physical health care — won’t be fixed by fall. Others are concerned their children won’t learn as much as they might have if school were in person.

According to an informal survey The Seattle Times sent to 25 Washington school districts, some plan to take attendance on Zoom, others by checking who’s logged on to an online learning portal. There is still uncertainty — and real concern — over the basics, such as how districts plan to support younger kids who need significant guidance. Few details, if any, are available on what improved services would look like for kids with disabilities, English learners or homeless kids.

Some smaller school systems and private schools are forging ahead with hybrid models that combine in-person and online schooling, including South Kitsap, Onalaska and the Lummi Nation School. Outdoor schooling is gaining traction in Seattle, the state’s largest district.

Several districts say they will offer live instruction just a few hours a day, leaving children on their own to continue learning for most of the time. This new normal might tempt districts to cut back on how much gets taught — a move that might be a mistake, some experts warn.

“It’s going to be really critical not to give up on students or lower expectations in some way,” said Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

No matter what, educators will be fighting to push past learning losses from the past six months: Researchers at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform say U.S. public school students learned less than half of the math and just under 70% of the language arts skills they would have learned if schools had remained open last spring.

A dose of reality:

Almost immediately after her school closed, Andrea de Armas learned it was not realistic to replicate in-person learning.

“We were just trying to keep up with our pacing [last spring]. We didn’t take the time to stop and say, ‘Wait a minute, what is the goal?’” said de Armas, a former dual-language kindergarten teacher who now consults at the Illinois-based Center for Teaching for Biliteracy.

De Armas is one of many educators who say they struggled to race through their curriculum with little guarantee students were learning. But de Armas, who is helping Highline Public Schools plan for fall, quickly shifted gears.

When she realized students were easily distracted during group lessons over 20 minutes, she started introducing new material during shorter sessions. Then, she split her students into groups of four or five for in-depth learning.

“You need the flexibility to be able to say, I’m going to take 21 kids and break them into five groups,” she said. “You are there longer, but you are able to reach your students.”

Pairing strategies like this with high expectations — and compassion — will keep students from falling behind, Allensworth said. If schools don’t maintain standards, they risk the possibility that families with more resources will transfer, hire private tutors or form tutoring groups, known as “pandemic pods.”

“Families with more resources can buy their way out of a lot of the stress,” she said. “They continue to move ahead while families with fewer resources don’t.”

Yazmín Gil understands the importance of building trust with her students’ families. Being a kindergarten teacher is a big part of it since she’s often families’ first point of contact as they learn to navigate the school system.

It’s more than that, said Gil, who teaches mostly English-learner students at Hilltop Elementary in Burien. She gets to know her families on a personal level.

“Being a teacher of color gave me a different lens … for the families who are emergent bilingual. The struggles they might have going on,” she said.

When schools closed in March, the importance of the relationships she’d built were suddenly magnified. Some of her students’ parents lost jobs, or needed help with rent, meals or diapers. She tried to anticipate their needs, and asked how she could help.

Building relationships was the top theme that emerged from a series of meetings on schooling during COVID-19 held by a team of researchers at Harvard University and MIT. Trust between teachers and their students “inspires learners to do their work, enables teachers to offer candid feedback and criticism, and helps teachers learn to find the keys that unlock student potential,” the researchers found.

The team also found creative solutions to an inevitable challenge: Many students won’t know their new teachers this year. To help students feel supported, schools could ask students to install a “call a teacher” button in their browser that connects them to someone who helps with assignments. To have continuity with a teacher they know, the researchers say schools could consider “looping” — moving teachers up a grade so they stick with their previous students.

Gil is devising plans to meet her students one-on-one, either online or socially distanced in person, before school starts.

“This is not going to be easy for anybody, but I’m going to be their biggest fan,” she said.

Here’s what several education experts say: It’s time to take what we know works and apply it.

The reality: “Every week new information comes in, and [districts] take this new information and they make the best decision they can,” said Sharon Vaughn, executive director at The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, at the University of Texas, Austin.

In Washington, districts must submit a reopening plan to the state education department within two weeks of their first day of school that requires them to attest they will provide the minimum amount of instructional hours in whatever plan they pursue. Some states — like Louisiana — want more proof that districts intend to help students catch up, said Robin Lake, director of Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).

Lake and her colleagues are tracking these plans. They’re “across the map,” she said, partially because many districts had to trash initial plans when it became clear it wasn’t safe to offer in-person learning. The best of their plans, she said, give more predictability to parents, and provide clear expectations.

In Northshore, whose closure set off alarm bells in March, Superintendent Michelle Reid has a reading list that points families toward the research she’s consulting in order to make decisions. When Highline still planned to partially reopen, the district created a page that directly addressed students to describe the school day.

Renton assembled a 120-person committee — at least one person from every school, most of them classroom teachers — to make plans for the fall. Teachers helped guide the process by sharing what worked, and what flopped. The plan emphasizes giving families and students clear, concise communication about what each week’s lessons are about, and making time and space for students to and families to connect with teachers and one another.

The challenges are more acute in districts such as Yakima School District, where 80% of students are Latino and many are the children of agricultural workers and migrants, most of them low-income. A third of students are learning English. Their chances at starting in-person were quashed this summer after months of severe viral outbreaks in the area.

This district learned from surveys and focus groups that while parents worked in factories and other jobs during the day, older students watched over their young siblings, leaving them little time for schoolwork.

The district is crafting a remote learning plan with those students in mind, allowing middle and high school kids flexibility to end the school day later. No classes are scheduled when the district is distributing meals, a community lifeline. Administrators recently hired eight migrant and bilingual advocates. District officials are working with the city to broadcast Wi-Fi everywhere, said the superintendent, Trevor Greene.

But no matter how effectively districts plan, this year will be harder for parents. “This school year is going to be such a mess,” said Shaun Glaze, the parent of an incoming first grader at Seattle’s Dearborn Park International Elementary School.

Glaze is disappointed that the district’s plans call for several hours of screen time for first graders, and that there won’t be much of an emphasis on social-emotional learning. As the Black parent of a mixed-race child, Glaze also wishes administrators would use this time to reimagine what school could be and not try to replicate the classroom online.