This article was updated on July 7, 2020.
Seattle-area school districts are struggling to provide the detailed schedule information that families need.
On June 11, Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal raised the hopes of parents everywhere, stating that schools would be opening for in-person instruction in the fall.
As parents joyfully tossed learning packets in the air, canceled ABC Mouse subscriptions and assured bosses of their undivided attention come September, school leaders were a bit more skeptical.
“Reykdal’s initial comments came as a shock, that he expected all students back in school,” says Dan Voelpel, executive director of communications at Tacoma Public Schools. “He’s walked back some of his comments … acknowledging that it’s impossible for school districts to safely bring all students back.”
In a June 20 address, Reykdal admitted it was unlikely every student could attend school daily. Unless a county is in phase 4 of the governor's reopening plan, schools can reopen only if student desks are 6 feet apart. Given current building and class sizes, the only way to solve this geometric conundrum is to have fewer students in the room, making a combination between in-person and distance learning the most likely scenario for the 2020–2021 school year.
State suggestions include rotating schedules, where students attend classes part-time, or a phase-in situation where elementary students and/or students with special needs return to school first while others begin online. Districts are also encouraged to develop several contingency plans as COVID-19 cases rise and fall.
“We are going to plan for it all,” says Harmony Weinberg, communications and public relations manager for the Edmonds School District. “We are considering everything. We know families work and count on school as a safe place for their children to go and learn, and we want to be mindful of all those pieces.”
While districts form task forces, collect survey data and argue over guiding principles, families are anxiously eyeing the calendar, wondering how they are going to manage in September. School reopening decisions have huge financial, physical and emotional repercussions on families, and knowing specific times and days children are going to be in school is essential for families to begin the daunting task of rearranging work schedules and securing child care.
“I know everyone is anxious,” says Weinberg, “but we really want to be thoughtful about every decision we make.”
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has assured families that online learning will be provided for any family that does not want to return in person, and is planning out various scenarios based on how many families chose the completely online option. K-5 students will have in-person learning a minimum of two days a week, while and middle and high school students would receive a minimum of one day a week, with students furthest from educational justice (those who received special educations services, for example) prioritized for more in-person time.
On June 30, the School Board was presented with a document that included plans to get the youngest students in class full time and secondary students to an A/B schedule with more time in school. The document also includes specific schools, enrollment numbers and sample schedules for children.
The focus on equity is echoed throughout the state. In the OSPI’s planning guide for reopening schools, Chris Reykdal implored schools to take this opportunity “to not just reopen schools, but to make changes you have wanted to make for years … dive into your grading policies, homework policies, disparate technology access … and other innovations. There has never been a bigger moment to examine our education system and improve our practices to further close opportunity gaps. This is a moment to reconsider and shift past practices that have contributed to racial inequality and a lack of equitable opportunities for so many of our students.”
Dr. Michelle Reid, superintendent of Northshore Public Schools, also sees opportunity at this time. Teaching under quarantine forced teachers to pivot and embrace technology whether they wanted to or not, which worked well for some students. “There were some kids who showed up, and people hadn’t realized some of their strengths and this model illuminated them … We are learning things that we never would have learned and we would be wise to integrate that moving forward.”
After a spring of false start and experiments, school leaders and teachers now have eight weeks to reflect and craft the best possible school schedule, one that keeps our communities healthy, provides safety and supervision to young children, closes achievement gaps, addresses racial and socioeconomic equity issues, provides high-quality online instruction and is flexible enough to change at a moment’s notice. It’s going to be a quick eight weeks.
Information and statements from specific districts: