The deadline is nearly here: Washington schools have two business days to figure out how they intend to teach the state’s roughly 1.1 million students remotely.
School districts are hurrying to get something – anything – prepared to satisfy state education department’s recent instructions to begin remote instruction by Monday.
State education leaders set this deadline just days ago. And the mandate to begin instruction wasn’t much more than that: State officials are leaving it up to districts to decide how to keep students learning. Some will inevitably learn online – many already are, such as students in the White River School District. But schools are expected to find creative alternatives for children without access to a computer, as well as those in special education and those learning English. And unlike other years, there won’t be state standardized tests to track student progress.
The decision to require some version of school was a reversal by education officials who first asked educators to hold off on remote learning unless they could provide it equitably. That spurred a big question: Is school in, or out?
When Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the state’s schools closed until at least April 24, some districts swiftly made plans for remote instruction. Many waited, citing the state’s initial guidance. The new instructions provided some direction for school leaders wondering what to do while school buildings are closed due to the coronavirus, some say. “We know the parent and community pressure to continue learning is really, really high,” said Katy Payne, spokeswoman for the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
Now that the expectation is clear, what will “school” look like next week?
On Wednesday, several Puget Sound school districts weren’t ready to discuss their plans in detail.
“We will have it figured out and ready to go on Monday, that’s all I can say,” said Dan Voelpel, spokesman for Tacoma Public Schools. The district has posted optional learning resources online and printed paper copies for families to pick up. But officials haven’t yet made public the district’s plans for formal remote instruction. “We haven’t even talked to our principals or teachers about it yet,” Voelpel said.
Other districts said they’re still drafting their plans.
The state’s largest school district, Seattle Public Schools, has encouraged but not required its teachers to send students lessons, said district spokesperson Tim Robinson. The district’s plans changed late Wednesday afternoon, when it reached an agreement with the local teacher’s union that requires educators to teach (remotely, in most cases) while buildings are closed.
By Monday, remote learning will likely include a combination of online and paper-based learning, Robinson said. The district’s superintendent Denise Juneau has said that a district as large as Seattle can’t go completely online; other large districts such as Los Angeles Unified School District, which educates over 700,000 students, are trying to do this. Seattle didn’t put out a call to families in need of a device, Robinson said, though he added that the district had begun to audit families’ needs.
Seattle and other school districts are still weighing big questions, such as how to serve high school seniors and whether to ease grading systems; state officials have suggested but not required that districts move from letter grades to pass/fail while schools are closed.
In Lake Washington, teachers were initially asked to contact families and offer students optional exercises to complete on their own. Now that they are required to provide a bona fide version of school, district officials said Wednesday that, “district leaders are currently working through the new guidance from OSPI to determine how we can adapt our initial plans.”
David Quinn, who coordinates the International Baccalaureate program at Edmonds-Woodway High School, said instruction hasn’t started yet in the Edmonds School District. District officials say they’re distributing Chromebooks to students without laptops and intend to give out 200 wireless hot spots to families without internet. About 500 families have requested hot spots, so the district is looking for ways to buy extras, a district spokesperson said.
“We want to make sure that the things we do don’t end up perpetuating systemic inequalities,” Quinn said. In the meantime, he’s using the video application Zoom to stay in touch with students.
What school districts ultimately decide to do may evolve as the weeks go on. Schools are left with days to remake a system that’s decades in the making, experts say.
“This is very much trying to build an airplane at 30,000 feet in some turbulence,” said Thomas Halverson, principal lecturer in the University of Washington’s College of Education. “Schools are going to make some mistakes. The way they can develop the best system is if they don’t feel petrified that every time they make a wrong move they are going to be heavily criticized.”
It will soon be easier to know what districts are doing. OSPI intends to survey school districts on a weekly basis, beginning next week. The survey will initially include questions about how many meals districts are providing to students, and how many child care slots they fill. By early April, officials say, they intend to ask districts about instruction.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of David Quinn.