Against the backdrop of protracted labor negotiations that have kept students in many school districts learning remotely for a year, Gov. Jay Inslee said he will issue an executive order next week on school reopening.
The order will require school districts to offer all K-12 students the option of attending school in a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning. Students from kindergarten through sixth grade must have that option by April 5, and all other students should have that opportunity by April 19, Inslee said.
Returning students to classrooms in the pandemic has been one of the most difficult challenges Inslee has faced. For many months, his office and State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said the state did not have the legal authority to compel districts to reopen school buildings, saying it was a matter for local school districts to work out with teachers unions and other labor groups.
Now, the governor said, many children are experiencing a significant mental health crisis, making it necessary for him to take this emergency action. Inslee said he expects districts and local teachers unions to meet the deadlines he has set.
"We believe this will succeed because this will help people to become solution-oriented, to have a consensus that we need to do this for the mental health of our children," he said.
Reykdal said data on student grades show that many are struggling. An increasing number of students are failing classes, receiving Ds, incompletes or no credit.
"One out of every four students in the state of Washington is not getting high school credit for one or more classes, and that’s a near 50 percent jump from what we’d see in a typical year," Reykdal said.
RESTARTING IN-PERSON LEARNING
Inslee has been traveling the state visiting classrooms where students are attending in person as a way to highlight that health and safety measures such as masking and physical distancing can mitigate risks of coronvirus transmission.
But getting kids back to classrooms, particularly in the Puget Sound region, has been difficult. The state’s largest school district, Seattle, remains almost exclusively in remote learning. The Seattle school district and the Seattle Education Association said earlier this week that they are close to a tentative agreement to bring preschool students and some students with disabilities back to classrooms on March 29, nearly a month later than the district originally planned.
Last week, after President Joe Biden urged states to prioritize educators and other school staff for vaccinations, Inslee made them immediately eligible to receive to receive a coronavirus vaccine. That was something many educators had wanted before returning to in-person instruction.
The Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union, said in a statement that not all of the state's 295 districts are prepared to welcome students back to classrooms safely.
"Local unions are actively bargaining with districts to ensure the return to buildings is as safe as possible," Julie Popper, a spokesperson for WEA, said in the statement. "Shortcutting those safety processes is not in the best interest of our students, staff, or communities."
The governor's announcement came as welcome news to Cherylynne Crowther, a mother of two high school students in Seattle. Her son in 10th grade receives special education services and has been getting ready to return to in-person learning, but that has been delayed because of ongoing labor negotiations.
Crowther said she’s hopeful the governor’s announcement will help speed up an agreement.
"I’m just going to assume that as the governor said this will help people become solution-oriented and that with that kind of a focus that this is mandated that they will find solutions to make sure this happens," she said.