How do you socially distance students on a school bus?
The vehicle certainly needs to be ventilated. So all windows should stay open, no matter the weather. Can drivers conduct temperature checks at the door? Should children wear masks? Maybe bus drivers should carry extras. And students could space themselves out: one child in every third seat or so.
This is one of dozens of thought experiments Washington school leaders are playing out as they design what learning will look like next school year. School “as usual” is unlikely, state education officials say. If it’s safe to return in person at all, the new normal could include hand-washing stations on playgrounds or hosting class in bigger spaces like school libraries or gymnasiums.
Members of the state education department’s 123-member work group, which recently formed to study reopening options, met virtually on Tuesday to begin mapping out everything from transportation to school lunch in a world transformed by the novel coronavirus.
So far, state leaders and work group members have made no decisions about next year. And education officials say they won’t send any guidance to schools until at least Monday. Even then, local districts will have flexibility to decide how to return to school, so long as they meet public health requirements and provide instruction.
“A lot of the work will happen at the local level,” Michaela Miller, deputy superintendent of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said at the meeting. “Trying to adapt to these times we’re in right now is going to take a heavy lift on the part of our districts.”
The state’s biggest district is evaluating its options. On Tuesday evening, Seattle Public Schools officials committed to announcing its back-to-school plan by June 19. The district is considering three scenarios:
- 100% remote learning.
- Full-time, in-person schooling for P-5 students; and a hybrid online/in-person model for older kids.
- A hybrid model of schooling for all students.
The state work group is studying scenarios intended to help districts improve how they’ll function next school year. When Gov. Jay Inslee closed school buildings statewide in mid-March, school districts worked independently to devise remote learning plans. But distance learning ended up uneven across the state. Families of students in special education say children aren’t getting services they’re legally entitled to. Homeless students and those from low-income homes are going without basic needs, such as hot meals and mental health support. Young children need extra help from parents to stay on task.
On Tuesday, much of the conversation centered on how reopening plans could best serve these children.
For example, the work group is studying a strategy that would rotate students through school buildings a few days a week. Under this scenario, work group members suggested, children who need extra support could come to school more often than their peers. Another idea: In-person learning could be phased in, with the youngest learners, and those with extra needs, welcomed back first.
These decisions might rest in smaller details. Coming back in-person might mean cutting physical class sizes in half. Schools would need rooms to isolate students who run a fever. Children might need to travel from class to class through one-way hallways.
Some staff — of older age or those with health concerns — might feel unsafe returning to campuses. Schools might need to hire additional staff to clean classrooms and common spaces.
There’s a chance remote learning will be the only safe option. If this is the case, members of the work group said, schools should focus on helping students create a school schedule at home.
What happens if children aren’t in school buildings part, or all, of the time?
Parents could be strapped to find child care, or mesh their work schedules with their child’s routine — a repeat of the past several months for many. Students who have struggled could fall further behind academically.
“We talked a lot about it and agonized a lot about it because this will be a significant burden on our families,” said Tammy Campbell, superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools and a work group member.
Under any scenario, several work group members agreed, staff will need professional development and students need access to mental health support. Educators, they said, should have a clear picture of what material students should be taught — and what is less of a priority. Some work group members suggested state education officials help spell this out, a move that could relieve districts from guessing which education standards to prioritize over others.
Staff writer Dahlia Bazzaz contributed reporting.