Washington state expects its school districts to provide three things while their buildings are closed: instruction, food and child care. New data from the state Education Department show districts posted uneven progress on those fronts during the first two weeks of the shutdown.
According to the results of a new state survey, most Washington districts said they served meals and provided online learning to students through April 4, the most recent data the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) could share by Friday.
As of April 4, more than a third of the districts that responded to the survey said they weren’t providing child care. The ones that did were only serving about 2,100 kids collectively. Between March 29 and April 4, nearly 90% of districts surveyed said they provided meals, 57% said they had or were planning to establish child care, and nearly 100% said they were providing instruction, with 75% reporting some real-time online learning.
This mixed outcome was expected by state education officials, who said early on that some districts would be more prepared than others. The results of the survey, answered by more than 80% of Washington’s nearly 300 school districts, will help the state assess which districts need more support with services. Officials said it is not an enforcement tool.
Gov. Jay Inslee and state schools chief Chris Reykdal directed schools to provide food and child care services as they announced the closure order last month. But on Friday, Reykdal’s agency, OSPI, said the services were not actually mandatory for school districts.
“The governor created exceptions to his school closure mandate within his proclamation, including the allowance for districts to use their buildings to prepare and serve meals and to provide child care. The governor didn’t mandate that districts provide them,” said Katy Payne, a spokeswoman for OPSI. “Superintendent Reykdal set an expectation for both, with food as a high priority because districts were already engaged in this activity.”
“The child care exemption [in the proclamation] was exceptionally narrow and we know districts have many more limitations related to this,” Payne said. “Not every building needed to be a child care center, and many community options were already available that did not necessitate each district to provide child care directly.”
Inslee’s order to close school buildings came with the expectation that districts would provide food and child care, which are critical services for health care workers and low-income students, who make up 45% of Washington’s 1.1 million public school enrollment.
“It is still at the discretion of each local school district as to how they decide to respond and provide these services,” Tara Lee, an Inslee spokeswoman, said in an email Friday.
Instruction is still required.
Most years, parents and taxpayers have reams of data to assess the performance of their schools and district, and much of it hinges on standardized testing. But with those tests canceled this year, and with many districts not recording attendance or grades, self-reported survey data will be one of the metrics to take its place.
As districts settle into the closure, OSPI plans to add new questions to the survey, including whether districts have given out laptops and other devices to help students learn online. It will also ask them to anticipate how many students need internet access and technology, and to share their challenges with teaching online.
Through early April, districts reported serving at least 4 million meals. Between March 29 and April 4, districts prepped nearly 300,000 breakfast and lunch meals a day. For comparison, in 2019, schools served all students an average of 482,000 lunches every day.
Some districts stood out in the early data.
The Yakima School District, a high-poverty district that enrolls 16,000 students, topped the state with more than 173,000 meals served between March 29 and April 4, eight times the number of meals reportedly served by Seattle Public Schools, a district with an enrollment three times its size.
The agency will continue compiling the data weekly.