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In Puget Sound area, not all students will return to classrooms this school year

Secondary students in the Lake Washington School District will continue with remote learning for the rest of the school year, the superintendent said this week.
Lake Washington School District
Secondary students in the Lake Washington School District will continue with remote learning for the rest of the school year, the superintendent said this week.

Some districts in the Puget Sound region say they will not be expanding in-person learning to all students this school year. That includes the Edmonds and Lake Washington districts.

Edmonds Superintendent Gustavo Balderas said in a statement on Thursday that “due to the complexity of negotiating working conditions and the logistics of fully implementing” a hybrid model of some in-person instruction and some remote learning for students in third through 12th grades, they will not return to school buildings this school year. He said the district and the educators union “do not see that it is feasible” because they would likely not return to classrooms until May, close to the end of the school year.

Lake Washington Superintendent Jon Holmen and the Lake Washington Education Association said in a joint statement, also issued on Thursday, that secondary students will remain in remote learning through the end of the school year. Lake Washington is the state’s second largest district, with more than 30,000 students, serving Redmond, Kirkland and parts of Sammamish.

“After analyzing a number of factors, the District has determined that the shift to a hybrid model and disruptions to schedules would create more challenges and problems for secondary students than benefits,” they said in the statement.

Both Edmonds and Lake Washington said they intend to offer in-person support to some students who need extra academic support or social interaction.

The news from the two districts comes at a time when Gov. Jay Inslee has been encouraging more school districts to bring students back to classrooms, saying the state now has data and research to guide how to offer in-person learning safely and mitigate the risks of transmitting the coronavirus.

Some districts in the Puget Sound region, including Puyallup, have already brought junior high school students back to classrooms and will offer in-person learning to high school students next week.

Some families reacted with dismay to news of Lake Washington’s decision. Parents said it’s a particularly big blow for high school seniors who missed part of their junior year at school when the pandemic first began and will now likely have no chance to attend school with their peers in person before graduating.

Nicole Steinbok, who has two sons in middle school in the Lake Washington district, said she’s frustrated and sad.

“There’s lots of government officials and medical folks saying going back to school can be safe, and there’s no explanation that I can understand from the email saying why we can’t do that in our school district,” she said.

But this is an emotionally fraught issue, particularly for teachers who have said they’re worried that school districts haven’t done enough to ensure health and safety and have asked to be prioritized for vaccinations. Other states, including Oregon, placed educators high up in the vaccine prioritization timeline as a way to get kids back to school buildings more quickly.

Coronavirus cases have been dropping in King County lately. At the current level, the state Department of Health says schools can bring students back to buildings in phases all the way up through high school.

But one factor that makes decisions more complicated is that health officials have been warning of new variants of the virus that have turned up in Washington in recent weeks.

In Seattle, the school board voted on Thursday to approve a reopening plan that prioritizes some children, including students who receive special education services and the youngest learners. The resolution also said that middle and high school students who are struggling with remote learning should be offered in-person help. It gives no timeline for a broad return to classrooms for students in second through 12th grades.

“The best that we can do is identify the students who need our in-person support, face-to-face services the most and start there,” said Seattle School Board Director Liza Rankin.

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.