Washington education officials surprised at least a few school districts — and families and teachers — when they announced earlier this month that school should resume in-person in the fall.
More than 1 million Washington children have been away from classrooms since mid-March, when Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools closed in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.
What’s changed since then? It’s become clear that most kids infected with coronavirus don’t get very sick; many show no symptoms at all. Although we don’t know how effectively children transmit the virus, schools will be required to take strict steps to keep everyone on campus safe and healthy.
Not everyone is convinced that returning in person is a good idea — and evidence from countries such as China and South Korea, which reopened and then shuttered schools after a coronavirus resurgence — may hint at what’s to come here. Early research suggests that closing schools helped curb the virus’s course.
To better understand how Puget Sound region schools are preparing to reopen, The Seattle Times sent an informal survey to about a dozen districts. Of the eight that responded, none were prepared yet to answer basic questions about distance-learning plans, transportation or strategies to keep school communities safe.
That said, here’s what we know so far about school next fall.
Will school actually be in-person?
For many students, yes. The state’s schools chief Chris Reykdal said as much last week.
Districts are beginning to iron out what that means: Even though education officials say class can resume, students and staff have to follow strict safety requirements, such as keeping a 6-foot distance. How many of Washington’s classrooms are too small to space desks 6 feet apart? Unfortunately, the state isn’t tracking this. Districts might end up offering some or all classes remotely if they can’t find ways to keep students and staff distanced in classrooms or hallways.
Many teachers and administrators won’t be able to return in person. Those who are older, immunocompromised, or have at-risk family members, are hoping for remote-learning options, and school districts have the summer to figure out how this might work. So far, details are thin.
How will school be different?
That depends on where you live. Seattle Public Schools officials, for instance, announced plans on Friday to reopen schools as usual only if King County has entered Phase 4 of the governor’s coronavirus reopening plan. Otherwise, class will be a hybrid of online and in-person learning. In places where COVID-19 cases and transmission rates are low, school might be entirely in-person.
In most places, school buildings will feel a bit … sterile.
Kindergarten teachers with small classrooms might be forced to remove cubbies or toy bins to make space for desks. Schools may physically screen people who come on campus for coronavirus symptoms. Routine cleaning will become even more routine.
Teachers and bus drivers may leave classroom and school-bus windows open to keep air moving. Everyone will wash their hands. And then they’ll do it again, and again, throughout the day. Some of these changes were hashed out by the state’s labor, health and education departments as part of state and federal workplace requirements.
School districts have leeway to make other changes. Hot lunches might be delivered to classrooms, for example, to avoid gathering children in lunchrooms. To shrink the number of children on school buses at any given time, districts might require those who live within a larger radius to walk to school.
Does this mean everyone will wear face coverings?
Yes. Staff must wear some form of face covering such as a cloth mask, state education officials say, and schools are on the hook to provide them. Children must also keep their faces covered, and should practice wearing masks so they’re used to them by the time school starts, officials advise. Schools don’t have to keep masks stocked for all students, but are expected to have some on hand for children who show up to class without one.
Some people can’t wear masks, though, such as those with respiratory problems, sensory sensitivities or certain disabilities. Those folks are excluded from the face-covering requirement. Others simply won’t want to keep them on during the school day. Think of preschoolers and kindergartners, who will also struggle to avoid hugging each other, touching their faces and staying distant on playgrounds.
What happens if a student or staff member has coronaviruslike symptoms at school?
Schools are supposed to keep anyone with symptoms away from others until they’re able to leave the building. The reality of this might prove tricky. Some school nursing offices are no bigger than a closet. Schools might be extra tight on space because of social-distancing rules, and won’t be able to spare a classroom or office space to temporarily isolate people.
Students and staff can come back to school three days after they’ve recovered from symptoms. They can’t return unless it’s also been at least 10 days since their symptoms showed up, or a health provider confirms they don’t have coronavirus.
It sounds like schools might need more medical staff. What role will school nurses play?
School nurses are public health employees, and are typically trained to do many of the important tasks you’re hearing about lately, such as contact tracing and symptom screening. They routinely do a version of these duties when students and staff get sick with other illnesses.
But many districts in Washington can’t afford to hire enough nurses, and it’s unlikely that schools will get money from lawmakers next session to hire more. Districts have discretion in how they use state funding, though, and could divert money from other programs to bring more nurses on staff. Districts might also choose to use local levy dollars for this purpose, if they have money at their disposal (not all districts do, and property-poor districts are least likely to have extra cash on hand).
Everyone’s talking about how much students missed out on this spring. How will schools know what students need to catch up?
School districts are supposed to screen all students for academic, mental health and family concerns when they return in the fall. The data is meant to help teachers and staff get a sense of students’ learning loss and the kind of personal support they need.
Education officials aren’t mandating that districts use a single, universal tool, so it will be difficult to gauge differences across the state.
When asked about what they learned about education equity during school closures, none of the districts The Seattle Times surveyed provided a response.
What if the pandemic worsens in Washington over the summer?
If this happens, everything could change. Health authorities, for example, might not allow school buildings to reopen where coronavirus infection rates haven’t slowed, or are increasing. “There’s definitely room for all of that to evolve and I imagine some of it probably will,” said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the state’s education department.
Although districts have the go-ahead to resume classes, they’re waiting to hear from state officials about whether school sports and activities will be allowed. They’re also waiting for details about how to best serve early learners and children in special education.