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State superintendent says distance learning is not working for a lot of kids

Ted S. Warren
Associated Press
Washington state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal speaks at a news conference Monday, April 6, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.

More than half of the state’s public school students are in districts offering almost exclusively remote learning, but state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal acknowledged to state lawmakers on Monday that distance learning is not working for a lot of kids.

Reykdal told lawmakers during a House Education Committee meeting that Washington has given conservative guidanceto school districts on when to do face-to-face instruction, and he said some districts have opted to continue remote learning even when virus transmission rates are low.

But he said that’s a trade-off, and he’s worried about the mental health impacts of distance learning for kids. Reykdal said there are a lot of students not passing classes right now.

“They’re failing a lot. And it turns out, in the beginning, we thought it was about devices and connectivity, and that’s certainly still some of it. They’re failing because they’re not engaged,” Reykdal said, adding that he’s watched even his own children struggle with remote learning. 

Reykdal’s assessment comes at a critical time, amid intensifying calls from parents pushing for school districts to bring students back for face-to-face learning. They say their children are losing motivation, falling behind academically and suffering from the lack of interaction with their peers and teachers.

But the coronavirus case rates have escalated to dangerous levels in recent weeks, with the number of newly diagnosed cases topping 400 per 100,000 people over two weeks. That’s far higher than the 75 cases per 100,000 people threshold the state’s guidance to school districts categorizes as a high activity level, at which point the state “strongly” recommends distance learning, with some limited in-person instruction for high-needs students.

State officials have been in the process of considering revising the guidance to encourage in-person learning at higher rates of coronavirus transmission, because research has so far shown that schools do not appear to stoke community spread.

Reykdal said that because Washington is a local control state, reopening for in-person instruction is done at the school-district level, with advice from health officials. He said if lawmakers want a different setup, they’d have to shift to a more state-controlled system, but he did not say that he advocates that move.

Lawmakers also heard from several school district superintendents, who addressed the Senate Ways and Means Committee regarding education funding. One of them, Art Jarvis of the Peninsula School District, echoed what Reykdal said about students struggling with remote learning.

“We’re seeing more Ds and Fs. We’re seeing more incompletes. We’re seeing more kids dropping away. We’re seeing more evidence that social-emotional issues that range from disengagement with the schools to suicidal tendencies to all the social-emotional pieces that come with it need to be addressed and the question of, 'What are we going to do?’ ” Jarvis said.

He urged lawmakers to preserve education funding even though statewide public school enrollment has dropped 3.7 percent this school year, which would mean a cut of about $500 million in state funding. The Peninsula district is providing in-person learning for students in kindergarten and first grade, but he said it’s expensive to staff that.

“In spite of lost enrollment in kindergarten, we had to add five teachers. In spite of lost enrollment in first grade, we had to add six teaching positions,” Jarvis said. “So we added 11 teaching positions for K-1 in the Peninsula School District at a cost of over $1 million.”

He said the added teachers are necessary to keep student groups small to allow for physical distancing. Jarvis told lawmakers the Peninsula district received about $600,000 from the federal CARES Act earlier this year but has since spent that money.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.