With the arrival of back-to-school season, the much talked about “new normal” is finally in view, as students return to classrooms poised to look more like they did pre-COVID-19. Districts have largely shed strict health protocols and there’s renewed energy to make up for lost instructional time.

But as families gear up for another academic year, questions remain about how students will fare as the pandemic wrought havoc on classroom learning opportunities, the mental health of students and overall enrollment.

The Seattle Times Education Lab sat down with Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal to ask what he sees as some of the biggest issues facing schools this fall and what to watch as the new academic year unfolds. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

When it comes to this upcoming school year, what about it stands out to you?

This clearly takes on something a little unique because we are seemingly through the worst of the pandemic. I think the sheer burnout of the last two years caught up with everybody, and so there has been, I think, a genuine assessment of what matters most. Districts are poised to sort of simplify here, and really get their federal and state money focused on the classroom. 

My sense is they have a much better game plan for instructional delivery, and just assessments alone — we assessed twice last year — it was still a year of total newness, novelty, and this year will feel a whole lot more like the instructional time they want with kids. 

What’s your mood or outlook going into it?

The mood out there is people are tired already … and yet I think they’re looking to have this be the start of something really refreshing as opposed to always reactionary, which has been the case for the last three years. 

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If I have one hesitation, it’s that genuine people are all very focused on student success right now, and people who aren’t very genuine are still bringing political rage to their school boards and to their districts. Unfortunately, in some communities, they’re still going to feel this national culture war as the dominant theme at least in the governance parts of their district, so that’s the one place that I think still isn’t settled. 

What are you and your team watching for as the year progresses to gauge how things are going, how schools, how students are doing?

So first, the priority for us is learning, learning, learning. We want the system to feel like its whole energy is back to student supports, both academically and social-emotionally, which means they’re having to spend a lot less time on health protocols and being sort of front-line public health administrators. 

By September, October we’ll have a very good initial look at attendance. We saw a nice recovery last year in average daily attendance compared to the prior year, so those are a couple of early indicators for us. 

How concerned are you about the wellness of kids coming into this school year, especially when we hear educators talk about behavior issues?

My biggest concern for the success of kids was never whether they would get high quality academic content — it’s can the school system have a meaningful set of interventions when the rest of society has factors that are absolutely contributing to the mental health impacts of young people?

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That has weighed on me from Day One, as a parent it weighs on me to this day. So clearly something we will do is spend some energy listening to school districts on how they think that’s going, whether routine is helping — getting into a normal routine and lowering the anxiety of the unknown. We’ll be doing our best to try to understand where they put those investments in terms of social emotional learning, mental health and whether they’re seeing better outcomes this year. 

Are there specific areas that continue to experience teacher and staff shortages? 

My confidence is that we’re nowhere near what we’re seeing nationally in terms of teacher shortage, but we do have our pockets, we’ve got some by geography, and then we definitely have subject area — it’s still a real challenge to get enough educators who are certified in supporting students with disabilities. I do think we have a building level administrator problem, like we are having a heck of a time convincing people who have been in the classroom to become building level administrators. They have seen that job over the last several years and many of them say “No thank you.”

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During the pandemic, schools saw their enrollments drop. What do you expect is going to happen with that? 

I expect some recovery in enrollment, it’s going to be relatively slow, but I expect to see that. 

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If there’s one thing I wish we could snap our fingers and get out of the lexicon, it is the “K-12 lost 40,000 kids and we don’t know where they are” — that is the worst thing I hear. This wasn’t really a high school or middle school issue, people who were with us didn’t really leave — some of that occurred, they went to private schools and other options. Mostly, it was families for the last three years who had an incoming 5-year-old kindergartner who said “No, I’m going to wait until all this calms down.”

So it’s not that we lost 40,000 enrollment per se that were with us, it’s that we had 40,000 fewer [full time enrollments] last year — probably half of whom we never had.

What can you say about state test results right now? How worried are you about those compared to 2021?

What we don’t have totally calculated and analyzed is spring data — that takes us a while. It got better, as it should — they were in school all year. Assessment this year will return to more “normal” — we’ll assess in the spring; it’ll be the same cycle we run pre-COVID.

The philosophy part of it though is … I’m just never going to believe that this assessment that we use gives families good information, nor educators good information. 

It’s very good at the macro. We can tell you that more fourth graders struggled in math than pre-COVID, that’s a genuine and honest assessment that you can make of this whole deal based on tests. They are meant to say particularly in math, if we design backward from calculus, we have a concept of where students should be if they’re going to be in calculus at some point in high school. 

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Those who come out though and say because a student didn’t get a four or a three they’re failing, is a really insincere approach. It’s occurring to me now that the assessment system is being weaponized because it’s being misconstrued for its purpose. 

How are you talking with people and schools about the importance of building up that community again within schools and reestablishing trust?

What I’m reminding them is that comes first — they might have the best redesign of curriculum or instruction or assessment, but getting to know your students, teachers knowing their kids, building a relationship and then fostering that sense of hope, like “Hey, welcome to this class, if you put in the work I’m going to put in the work, and you’re going to have a great time in here and you’re going to learn a ton” — building that sense of expectations where the student also owns some of that responsibility, it’s back.