For an hour-and-a-half on Wednesdays, Yakima School District’s Franklin Middle School turns into a bread line.
Six lines of cars form in the school’s parking lot, said the principal, Sherry Anderson, and local police help direct the traffic. Each vehicle is filled with parents and kids waiting to receive a week’s supply of food, a lifeline amid a pandemic that has harmed the factory and farming community in Washington’s Yakima Valley.
Franklin Middle is one of seven sites offering this service in the 16,400-student district. Yakima has distributed more meals than districts many times its size, according to a survey the state administers to its roughly 300 school systems during the closure.
The weekly survey, which asks about meals, child care, remote learning and graduation, offers a small window into the way Yakima and other districts are succeeding and struggling in the six weeks since schools closed. Since the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) created the survey in March, between 69% to 83% of districts have responded in a given week. It’s one of the only forms of state governmental accountability on Washington’s school districts right now, but there are no consequences for skipping it.
Because the state doesn’t ask about every service each week, some answers are more outdated than others. The Seattle Times will be updating readers about changes in the data on a monthly basis. The questions have shifted as the state refocused its school-closure priorities.
At first, the numbers offered a look at mixed results offering child care and food; now the same can be said about remote learning and the tools schools can offer to help make it easier.
What the data tell us
Compared with other services, transitioning school lunch and breakfast to curbside service has been the easiest switch. Many districts still struggle with child care and Wi-Fi. That might be why paper packets were the remote learning tool most often cited by districts. Google Classroom far exceeds other platforms preferred for online learning.
The newest questions the state added to the survey, around mid-April, ask about internet and technology access across districts, an area of concern as more systems shift their instruction online. When the state education department declared instruction mandatory during the closure in late March, districts that didn’t already give devices to their students scrambled to do so.
On a question about computer access, asked between April 12 and 18, about a quarter of 240 responding districts estimated fewer than half of their students had a desktop or laptop computer at home. On a different question about tablets, 90 of 214 responding districts estimated fewer than 50% of their students had an internet-enabled phone or tablet at home.
But the hardware isn’t helpful without internet access, and districts took to the open-answer portion of the survey to ask for statewide broadband access, or ways to get their hands on more hotspots, which are in short supply.
More than half of districts say they’ve set up Wi-Fi hotspot locations where students could access from a safe distance, such as a parking lot. The state recently launched a program to help open up more spaces like this, including at public libraries.
Because they were already receiving shipments of food for students before the closure, close to all districts have been able to offer meals, said Katy Payne, a spokeswoman for OSPI.
And some, including Yakima, have ratcheted up their purchasing orders to food vendors to meet the demand.
“They are rocking it,” said Payne.
It has been a learning process for Franklin Middle, which has slightly more than 700 students, 82% of whom are eligible for free or discounted lunch, a metric used by the government to gauge child poverty. When the building first closed after Gov. Jay Inslee’s school-shutdown order six weeks ago, demand was so high they ran out of food, said Anderson.
The school serves 8,500 meals a week now, broadening its community reach dramatically.
“It’s their social outing of the week,” Anderson said. “Now the kids are starting to bring their pets to show us.”
Trevor Greene, the Yakima superintendent, estimates the district is spending $33,000 more weekly on food services.
Only 1,826 children were supervised in 95 districts the last week of April. Payne, who created the first drafts of the survey, expected higher numbers, given the availability of classroom space once schools closed their buildings.
But labor and logistical issues such as the ones encountered in Seattle — when the teachers’ union pushed back on educators being required to staff child care centers — have prevented districts from serving more kids, said Payne.
“I know there’s been issues with finding staffing, or using facilities, or not having protective equipment,” she said. “A significant percentage of our teaching force and paras, and school staff you would ask to staff a child care center, a lot of them are in the high-risk categories.”
More than 100 districts, a third of all school systems in the state, said they weren’t providing child care in early May.
What the data don’t tell us
The survey doesn’t ask districts to report how many students they’ve engaged with on online learning platforms, or any other methods of remote instruction. It’s also not an up-to-date account on everything, since the survey doesn’t ask about every topic every week.
And again, responding isn’t mandatory. Seattle Public Schools, the state’s largest district, didn’t answer any of the technology questions posed last month. (As of last week, the district still hadn’t yet commissioned a wide scale audit of how many families lack internet or computer access.)
It also doesn’t tell us how much money these services cost, and how districts are paying for them. OSPI plans to ask for that information, separate from the survey, in June.
Why it matters
As the situation continues to evolve, the numbers help policymakers and the public keep track of what districts are doing while their buildings are closed. For the time being, officials have set aside many other metrics of gauging school progress and educational equity, such as attendance, test scores and, in large part, grades.
The way schools offer services now could also change schools for good. At least, that’s what Yakima’s superintendent, Greene, thinks.
“It’s forcing us to be flexible and adapt,” said Greene, who is in his first year leading the district.
“I’ve been comparing this to a rubber band. I feel like we’ve been stretched out, and the challenge is not letting it snap back to the shape it used to, but put pegs in.”
Staff interactives developer Lauren Flannery contributed reporting.