Gov. Jay Inslee said there will be no more in-person instruction for the rest of the school year, as the state continues to take extraordinary measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of more than 300 Washington residents.
Schools will continue to provide instruction via distance learning, a transformation that district leaders have been trying to pull off in the span of just a few weeks.
“This decision is made on the clear epidemiological evidence that in order to give us a higher degree of confidence that we will suppress this pandemic, we simply cannot take the chance of reopening on-site instruction in this calendar school year,” Inslee said. “We cannot risk losing the gains we have made after the peak of this pandemic presumably will have passed.”
School districts are trying to surmount technological hurdles, especially a lack of computers and internet access for families. Amazon has announced it’s donating 8,200 laptops to students in Seattle Public Schools, which district leaders said they’ll use for elementary students who lack devices at home.
Washington’s decision to not have students return to school buildings this school year follows similar moves in other states, including Michigan, Indiana and New Mexico. Inslee’s decision means about 1.2 million children, in both public and private schools, will not return to traditional classroom instruction this academic year.
Inslee acknowledged that the kind of schooling children will receive will not be the same as in-person instruction, and that there are equity issues. Students who are learning English as a second language and students with disabilities are among the groups that Inslee said face challenges due to the switch to remote learning.
“We’re addressing this by allowing limited school activity for those students in school buildings that really follow social distancing guidelines, similar to the Department of Health guidelines for child care,” Inslee said.
'STRESSED, NERVOUS, SCARED'
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal praised school districts for offering “significant learning opportunities” for students since he required districts to start providing remote instruction last week. And he said that as difficult as it is to keep schools closed, it’s the right move from a public health point of view.
“We do not want that curve to suddenly spike up because we acted too quickly to come back,” Reykdal said, adding that it calls into question what school will look like in the fall.
“We know we have to be significantly better at this distance model in case we find ourselves in that reality,” he said.
Remote instruction has looked different district by district since the closures began. Some districts have set daily schedules – others have left it up to individual teachers to create and parents to try to sort out.
The Federal Way School District initially mailed six weeks' worth of materials to students to do at home. Now the district is moving ahead with remote instruction, including, at the high school level, Zoom lessons by teachers and weekly Zoom calls for parents starting the week of April 20. Superintendent Tammy Campbell said she and other district leaders have been working nonstop to reimagine school without school buildings.
“We’re basically trying to redesign something in the middle of the year, in the middle of a pandemic, when people are stressed, and nervous, and scared, frankly,” she said. “And you’re redesigning something you’d typically take a couple of years to do – we’ve done it in three weeks.”
Like many school districts, Federal Way does not have a computing device for each student. Campbell said they’ve distributed laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to seniors and have surveyed families to see how many others need computers. The district plans to collect machines the district has, disinfect them and loan them to students, she said, adding that the estimated need is about 6,000 computers.
But internet connectivity is still an issue.
“Wi-Fi hotspots are one of our biggest needs,” Campbell said.
While many parents, teachers and students were preparing for the possibility of school not reconvening in person this school year, the announcement still triggered sadness.
For Nada Mohammed, a 12-year-old sixth grader at Madison Middle School in West Seattle, it means more time trying to find things to do at home, away from his friends.
“It’s been pretty boring. There’s not much to do – everyone’s stuck in their homes,” Mohammed said. “It’s pretty boring.”
The only socializing he gets is playing Minecraft or Fortnite with his friends. For exercise, he sometimes uses his dad's treadmill. And for schoolwork, he has to share his older sister's computer.
In short, he'd rather be back to his old pre-coronavirus life.
“I kind of want school, because school’s the only thing that can actually keep me company,” he said. “And I’m going to miss all my friends.”
It's a lot for parents to manage, too. They have to improvise as teachers and also help children cope with missing milestones they had looked forward to.
Erin Okuno has a son in fifth grade at Beacon Hill International Elementary School in Seattle who was excited for his upcoming class trip. They had to have a hard conversation about it recently, before the news that there would be no more in-person school this academic year.
“I had to tell him, `Hey, buddy, there’s a really real chance that you’re not going to be able to go to fifth grade camp if we have to stay at home for much longer,’” Okuno said. “And he got really sad about that and got kind of quiet.”
She said he started to process the news that he would likely miss other events he had looked forward to, such as his school’s art night. Okuno said she's trying to come up with other fun things he could do with friends in this age of social distancing.
WILL SOME STUDENTS DISENGAGE?
One thing teachers and school administrators will be tracking is how many students fail to engage in remote instruction.
Tom Halverson, principal lecturer at the University of Washington’s College of Education, said there's a real danger that pushing ahead with academics right now will widen gaps between students with resources and ones who are more at risk.
“Those students that were sort of on the edge of disengaging back when things were functioning normally, I think those students are going to be those that are most easily lost through this process,” Halverson said.
Halverson said he would like to see school districts prioritize making sure students feel emotionally connected and safe. He said he expects colleges to adjust their admissions standards to be more understanding about what students are going through right now.
Halverson emphasized that this is a stressful period for all of us and we should not expect school to proceed as if life were normal.