OLYMPIA — The next time more than a million kids in Washington attend classes, it will be a new school year.
Washington K-12 public, private and charter schools will remain closed through the end of the academic year, Gov. Jay Inslee announced at a Monday news conference. Distance learning should continue, he said, and schools are expected to resume a normal schedule this fall.
The announcement comes 20 days into a state-mandated school closure, an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus. The closures were first supposed to last until at least April 24, about six weeks, but state schools chief Chris Reykdal has repeatedly stressed the shutdown could last longer.
“We simply cannot take the chance of reopening on-site instruction in this calendar school year,” Inslee said. “We cannot risk losing the gains we have made after the peak of this pandemic presumably will have passed.”
Inslee extended the school closure order despite improved projections for coronavirus in Washington state, a forecast that prompted him to send some ventilators back to harder-hit states. New information from the state Department of Health showed that as of 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Washington’s number of positive COVID-19 cases had climbed to 8,384 statewide, including 372 deaths. That Monday update included an additional 400 cases and 34 fatalities from the previous day.
“There will be a very human inclination to pop the champagne corks and go back to visiting our friends” Inslee said. “We just can’t do that, it’s just too deadly.”
Addressing students, Inslee said, “Your grades will not suffer.”
With the choice to keep education remote, Inslee challenged schools to adapt to a very different kind of instruction. In a moment that’s unprecedented — with roughly 1.2 million Washington students learning from home — officials had the option to end learning entirely out of concern that education wouldn’t be equitable. Or, they could try to use distance learning to educate as many students as possible.
Inslee and education officials have chosen the latter, but acknowledged that keeping buildings shuttered will be difficult for families and educators alike. “This is a hard decision,” Inslee said. “In the next several weeks our K-12 schools are not going to be the best they’ve ever been but they can be the most creative, they can be the most dedicated.”
There may be exceptions for students with “very severe challenges,” such as certain children with disabilities, Inslee said. “There are circumstances where they can be on-site,” he said.
Although school is expected to open this fall, Reykdal, standing next to Inslee during the news conference, urged educators to prepare for the possibility that schools could remain closed beyond this school year. “We know we have to be significantly better at this distance model in case we find ourselves in that reality.”
When Inslee initially ordered schools closed on March 13, his mandate came with strings: Schools must continue to provide food, instruction and some child care to students, 45% of whom are from low-income families statewide. Many school districts responded with innovative solutions, including delivering meals directly to families and holding classes via video chat.
But shifting guidance from state and federal officials about education requirements, labor disputes and differences in wealth and resources between school districts have made the response uneven from place to place. The mandate has highlighted districts’ strengths — and shortcomings — in tech-savviness and emergency planning.
In districts such as Seattle, the state’s largest, food services launched quickly but not all students have access to computers and reliable high-speed internet. And a conflict with its teachers union last week stymied a partnership with the city to expand child care services for medical workers and first responders.
At the start of the closure, Seattle and many other school districts such as Tacoma announced they wouldn’t provide instruction during the closure because of concerns about equity, heeding early guidance from the state that warned districts against remote learning if they couldn’t ensure they could reach everyone. The state education department changed its tune after officials realized that schools could be closed until the fall, potentially creating a six-month summer break.
“What I would love to see us do in greater scale is obviously get connectivity for our families” and devices to all students, Reykdal said. “Even a slow connection could be a significant limitation.” He promised to scale up “pockets of excellence” in districts that have been able to build out their technology, particularly to serve students with disabilities. Some districts have begun using video conferencing or other techniques to update students’ individualized education plans, which are crafted to make sure students with disabilities get the service they need.
Districts were still scrambling to comply with the mandate to provide instruction, which took effect March 30. For the millions touched by school shutdowns, the days since have been marked by chaos.
Seattle Public School officials said they intend to continue providing a combination of online and paper-based lessons; on Monday, Amazon announced plans to donate more than 8,000 laptops to SPS students. “This is how we ‘do school’ now – remotely, with families as co-educators and partners,” said SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau in a statement.
Students, though optimistic, worry about getting the credits required to graduate and missing important rites of passage; the state is considering a change in its graduation requirements for this year. “If you’re a senior in good standing, we’ll expect that you will receive your diploma this year,” Inslee said Monday.
Parents are juggling work with pressure to ensure their children don’t slide academically. And educators grapple with the task of engaging students from afar and building lesson plans without the feedback they normally receive in the classroom.
Many teachers say students have been slow to respond to their messages about assignments, if at all.
“It gives me anxiety dreams,” said Mary Cushman, a teacher at the southwest campus of Interagency Academy, an alternative high school in Seattle.
Many of the students she works with have a history of truancy, and she worries about those students falling even further behind. “I kinda feel like I am a salesperson, and I’m on this car lot, and I’m waiting to sell something,” said Cushman.
The state has waived requirements this year for schools to make up the days missed. But Reykdal said last week he’s considering lengthening the school day once classes are back in session.
When will it be safe to reopen schools?
It’s hard to say. Inslee said last week that state officials and epidemiologists are monitoring fatality and hospitalization rates, and keeping abreast of COVID-19 testing rates and therapy possibilities, as they consider when it’s safe to reopen public life, such as schools and businesses.
Ending the shelter-in-place mandate and social distancing guidelines will be based on “when we are confident we have suppressed all of these data points,” he said during a virtual press conference on April 2.
But schools may be more difficult to reopen than other public spaces, some experts say. When businesses eventually reopen, customers have the choice to visit or not, based on their own concerns about health and safety. Not so with schools: Once school buildings open their doors, teachers, staff and students may be encouraged or compelled to go back. These decisions may be made at the district level once statewide orders end.
But in general, “Schools are sort of an all-or-nothing switch,” said Aaron Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. “We may have to be really sure we have things under control before we start doing that.”
Guidance released last month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there was almost “no data” on the right time to reopen schools. It suggested longer-term school closures, between eight to 20 weeks, are more effective than short-term closures in fighting the spread of the virus.
It also noted that school closures in other countries did not appear (at the time) to play a role in how successful they were in combating the virus.
“The return to school is a very difficult contemplation,” Reykdal said Monday. “A rush back to school puts significant risk in learning continuity.”
Inslee’s Monday announcement applied only to K-12 schools, but all six of Washington’s public four-year higher education institutions have already announced they will remain online-only through the end of the academic year.
All of the state’s community and technical colleges have also decided to teach the remainder of the spring quarter online. They have not yet made a decision about summer quarter. That decision is up to each individual college. (Although there’s a state governing board for the community colleges, they make decisions about staying open or staying shut individually.)
Most of Washington’s private colleges and universities are also teaching all classes online through the end of the quarter or semester, including Seattle University, Seattle Pacific University and Gonzaga University.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Mary Cushman’s name.