Just as Seattle-area school districts were finalizing re-opening plans for fall instruction, rising COVID-19 levels forced them to reconsider the wisdom and safety of any in-person education. Several districts, from Kent to Northshore have recently committed to begin the school year completely online, and others are expected to follow suit this week.
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. Schools can reopen only if student desks are situated 6 feet apart. Given current building and class sizes, the only way to solve this spatial conundrum is to have fewer students in the room, making a combination of in-person and distance learning the most likely scenario for the 2020–2021 school year — at that time.
In July, the debate on school reopening exploded on the national stage when Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stated their expectations that all schools should completely reopen in the fall — and threatened to cut funding to those that do not. Many of the largest school districts across the United States have dismissed these expectations and threats, claiming that the health of students, teachers and families are paramount. School districts from L.A. to Atlanta plan to begin the year online. Florida educators have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the state's emergency order that forces schools to open for in-person instruction next month.
Regardless of how the school year begins, districts still need to create safe reopening plans to file with the state education office. Some school board members are considering a proposal that would move in-person instruction to outdoor spaces. So far, the decision to open schools has been left up to each district. While the Washington State Department of Health has offered some guidance, local health officials and school leaders will likely be making the final decisions about school schedules.
On July 21, the Northshore School District announced a remote-only start and also released detailed plans for a gradual reopening. All students will begin the school year online. Once safe, select groups of students will be allowed to return to campus. First, only students in the greatest need of additional support will return to school. Then, the youngest learners will return to class, and in the final hybrid step, all students will return to class two days a week.
Kent and Federal Way also announced last week that the school year would begin remotely, which triggered an avalanche of similar announcements from across the state. While a fall of at-home learning seems inevitable, families from a few districts are still holding their breath.
On July 28, Issaquah's superintendent recommended a 100-percent remote start and the board will vote on July 30. While an email alerted Seattle staff members that Superintendent Juneau is recommending to the School Board that Seattle Public Schools start the 2020–2021 school year remotely, a final decision will not be made until Aug. 12.
On July 29, the Edmonds School District, citing Snohomish County Health District's recommendations, announced that the school year would begin with remote learning. The first day of school for Edmonds students will be Wednesday, September 9. The earliest students may return to in-person learning is November 12, dependent on COVID cases and the advice of local health authorities.
Information and statements from specific districts: