Shortly after Seattle Public Schools closed, Molly Jenkins sent her friends silly, wistful text messages. 

Molly, 17 and a junior at Ingraham High School, made plans to visit the Asian Art Museum once it’s safe to be in public again (“We can get all gussied up and take the museum by storm,” she wrote). 

Her tone changed when she learned schools would not resume for at least six weeks. “My heart is beating quite fast,” she texted a friend.

Now, everything is different. Home is crowded. Her older sister is back from college (classes went online). Dad and Mom work from home. To escape, she goes where she knows she’ll be safe. To the park, her backyard or inside her own head. “Every day feels like a Sunday,” she said. 

So, school’s out. Or is it? 

In the week since Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to shut down Washington schools, school leaders have found themselves in startlingly unfamiliar territory. The story is similar elsewhere, and there’s no blueprint: Schools have closed from California to Maine, and as with most things about the arrival of the novel coronavirus here, suddenly shutting schools down for months during a pandemic is, well, novel. 

Some states are taking decisive actions. Oklahoma ceased all instruction while buildings are closed. California aims to do the opposite.

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In Washington, which serves more than 1.1 million students, basic questions (are schools required to continue teaching?) remain unanswered. Now, educators and families are eager to know what ‘school’ in Washington means for the foreseeable future. “The pandemic means that leaders have to reinvent a school system that was a century in the making but with only days to do it,” said Meredith Honig, professor of education at the University of Washington.

Initially, state education officials urged schools to muddle through to the best of their abilities. On Friday, they said they would issue stronger recommendations given the scale and length of the closures. Still, they say their powers are limited: Local control of schools allows districts to make most decisions on their own, even amid a public health crisis. So far, instruction during closures has been a patchwork of uneven efforts across the state. 

The closure halts a system that data shows has already left some students of color behind. Uneven resources and the flexibility school districts have in this new environment threaten to widen existing gaps between students with privilege and those without.

Districts like Northshore and White River used the closures as an opportunity to experiment with going completely online. But other districts, especially those with high numbers of students living in poverty such as Seattle, Federal Way and Tacoma, are holding back — at least for now. Many districts don’t have the technology or training to snap from the classroom to the cloud.

“An incredible moment like this daylights the inequities that school systems live [with] all the time,” Honig said. 

Keeping children fed and safe — a critical role schools play even in the best of times — has become even more essential than instruction, some say. Many districts are organizing child care and troubleshooting how to deliver breakfast and lunch to students who rely on school for most meals. Figuring out what lessons look like will come later. 

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One hope, Honig said, “is that through this crisis we will figure out even better ways to deal with some of those in longer-term and enduring ways.”

The crisis has spurred frustration and confusion, as people try to figure out if instruction is required, how young learners would adjust to remote classrooms, and how to serve students with disabilities. According to the state’s top education official, union contracts compel teachers to work as long as they’re getting paid, though there’s no specific state requirement that school continue. 

“We’re likely to say we expect some instruction, we expect some learning,” state superintendent Chris Reykdal said on Wednesday. 

The state teacher’s union sided with that guidance. Unions and districts are negotiating additions to their contracts to cover the expectations for teachers during the closures, said Linda Mullen, a spokeswoman for the Washington Education Association. 

On Wednesday, Reykdal said he would wait for guidance from federal officials on several issues, such as special education, before offering more specifics for what districts should do. “We won’t go alone without the feds,” he said. But on Friday, his department said it would push out stronger recommendations by early this week instead of waiting. 

Meanwhile, many are going it alone.

Molly has occupied her newfound time by keeping up with online classes at North Seattle College and by practicing French; her French instructor at Ingraham is the only teacher that’s been in touch with new assignments.

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She’s also taking morning shifts at the toy and game store where she has a part-time job, one of few retailers to remain open; new cleaning protocols keep her busy disinfecting doorknobs and the checkout counter, and sanitizing toddler toys. The shop is nearly out of hand sanitizer and her boss recently announced a plan to make a homemade version. 

Before a shift a few weeks ago, her dad jokingly asked if she’d heard of a game called “Pandemic.” “I went into work,” she said, “And the very first person who came into buy something bought [that game].”

Going remote

Christine Schumacher held her first video conference with students in her yearbook class Thursday morning. 

The teens, students of White River High School, trickled in slowly, their faces and bedrooms appearing in boxes at the top of Zoom video chat app. Schumacher sat in front of window blinds with sunlight pouring through, and welcomed the new arrivals cheerily. 

“Good morning, Jeremy!” she chimed. “You figured it out.” 

As she explained deadlines and logistics for completing yearbook pages, Schumacher’s 7-year-old son, Flynn, occasionally popped into view. The barks of her dog, a Vizsla named Lucky, could be heard.

Schumacher said her district, which serves about 4,200 students in the small town of Buckley, is fortunate. Most kids have Chromebooks, and her school made a digital transition plan relatively quickly. She’s made minor adjustments to ensure her lessons are compatible with her students’ computers, but said the biggest challenge is the emotional toll of not seeing her students in person. 

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“We worry about our kids every day,” she said.

White River officials said they’re working to get hot spots to about 200 families who don’t have internet at home. Students in grades 2 to 12 are almost entirely online, Superintendent Janel Keating Hambly said, though they aren’t expected to work as many hours as usual.

The district went “kid by kid,” Keating Hambly said, to identify those who need extra support, a tactic that’s easier to accomplish in a small district than a large one. 

In Federal Way, a larger district where 66% of students are low-income, not all teachers have training to bring learning online, said Daniel Harada, a 5th grade teacher at Wildwood Elementary. He sent students home with paper learning packets last Friday to cover the next two weeks, and says he’s waiting to see what his district decides to do next. 

“I’d love for some online learning to take place,” said Harada. But right now, “Everyone’s concern is that people are staying healthy and able to survive.” 

Uncharted territory

The state’s advice to districts about instruction has evolved over the past few weeks.

Late last month, before anyone predicted a long-term shutdown, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) told districts it would be better to make up days in the summer than use a distance-education model that fails to address the needs of all students, including those with disabilities, those learning English, and those without access to computers. 

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But when it became apparent that closures would last for months, the department changed its tune, and state officials are now encouraging districts to pilot distance-learning programs, whether online or printed or a combination of both. 

That directive leaves schools to navigate federal laws that demand equitable access to instruction for special education students and English learners. Districts like Seattle and Tacoma initially cited these equity concerns as the reason they weren’t going to offer a wide-scale model for digital learning. 

Worries about equitable access to instruction shouldn’t impede them, said Reykdal, though they shouldn’t “design a system that you know on the front end won’t work for some students,” he said. 

Which districts are going online? 

OSPI plans to ask school districts this question, but there’s no data yet, making it difficult to know whether a majority of districts have picked one form of remote learning over another.

A state survey offers insight into districts that may be able to go online: about 58% of Washington’s 295 school districts assign laptops to students in one or more grades. About a third said they offer programs that blend online and in-person instruction, according to a Seattle Times analysis of the data. Of those, most said such programs aren’t offered districtwide. 

In Northshore, the first big district to pilot a digital learning program during the coronavirus outbreak, officials paused and waited for more guidance on the law. 

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Kaylie Jones, a parent, said she could tell a lot of work went into the district’s program. But there were oversights: Her 8-year-old daughter, who has ADHD and autism, wasn’t getting the weekly time with an occupational therapist she is entitled to. Jones felt lost trying to guide her daughter through lessons, she said. 

“I’m afraid of doing something wrong,” said Jones. 

She said she wants the program to relaunch after the district makes adjustments.

“I want to be really clear about this: I didn’t want online learning to get canceled,” she said. “Some people here are blaming this on special education parents suing the district, and that’s not true.” 

Basic barriers

Pressing pause on school — over winter break, during summertime — sets back certain students more than others, research shows. While some have the resources to continue learning, many students of color, those from low-income families and children in special-education programs may not. As school closures stretch on for weeks, experts say, these students are most likely to lose learning time.

But some believe the scope of learning loss will be much greater: Most students will inevitably fall behind, some say. 

Most schools “are not adequately prepared to transfer and migrate the current structure of academic learning experiences to the cloud and also to be able to do that in a highly engaging way,” said Soojin Oh Park, assistant professor of early childhood and family studies at the University of Washington.

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For many communities and families, remote learning will be difficult to do with fidelity. This includes low-income families, single-parent families, those where parents can’t stay home from work, and those who can no longer rely on the support of family and friends because of social-distancing requirements. 

Families with multiple children may struggle to keep everyone on task. Children who are now in day care while their parents work may struggle to learn from home. Then there’s children in early elementary school: does it make sense to try online learning with kids so young?

The list of obstacles goes on.

Some districts have started to figure it out, even for the youngest learners. Carlee Juhl, a White River preschool teacher, sends videos of herself greeting students every morning before 9:30 a.m. On Thursday, the second day of the district’s online experiment, Juhl said she’d communicated with all 30 of her students at least a few times. 

Carlee Juhl, a preschool teacher in the White River School District, uploads videos of herself to an app so her students can continue learning while schools are closed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (Courtesy of Carlee Juhl)

The early learning educators in her district have standardized assignments for early grades. Juhl uploads them in English and Spanish to an app called Seesaw, and provides them in paper to one family that prefers printed materials.

“I’m keeping checklists of all my students and making sure they all have what they need,” said Juhl. 

Legal questions

Experts are now debating big questions over the responsibilities of school districts during national emergencies. 

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It’s time for the government to do more than just offer suggestions — leaders need to take action, said Mark Rosenbaum, civil rights attorney and director of the Los Angeles-based pro bono law firm Public Counsel. “It is insane to deny children at any point, but particularly in a crisis, access to literacy and access to education based on the cry of local control,” he said. 

“Comprehensive, effective learning frameworks are not built overnight,” the state education department responded. “On Monday, every district in the state will have a framework to guide their learning and teaching for the next five weeks.” 

The federal government, which has posted fact sheets about special education and is allowing states to cancel standardized testing this school year, has shirked its duty, too, Rosenbaum said. 

The federal Department of Education “takes seriously its responsibility to protect the rights of all students,” said Angela Morabito, a DOE spokeswoman. “We are working to provide schools with the flexibilities they will need to serve students throughout this national emergency.”

Children’s basic needs should come first, some say. 

In Bellevue, Superintendent Ivan Duran said he’s prioritized child care and meals over instruction — at least so far. An informal survey of families last week gave officials a measure of this need: About 200 families said they need child care, roughly 1,600 requested laptops and about 700 need Wi-Fi hot spots. In its first week of closure the district distributed to students about 2,500 lunches, and about 2,000 breakfasts. 

Bellevue teachers were writing instruction plans last week and intend to begin sending students assignments early this week.

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Administrators are now wrestling with a new set of questions. Among them: Should students be required to log in and interact with their teachers? How will grading work?

“It’s a misbelief for people to believe that school systems can just turn a switch and be in an online environment,” Duran said. 

Before making these decisions, he said, he’ll wait for guidance from state officials.

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