OLYMPIA — Washington students will not return to classrooms this school year, maybe longer, leaving teachers with the daunting challenge of educating about 1.2 million elementary and secondary students through distance learning.
Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday extended the current closure of public, private and charter schools through June 19 in an ongoing effort to blunt the spread of coronavirus. Washington is now one of 14 states to take such action.
“This closure is guided by science and is our greatest opportunity to keep our kids, educators and communities safe,” Inslee said at a news conference. “If there is any opportunity to bring students back for a few days, including graduation ceremonies for our seniors, we will continue to explore that option.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal joined Inslee for the announcement.
“These are difficult times, and this is a tough day here in Washington state,” Reykdal said.
School campuses have endured an unprecedented shutdown statewide since March 17 under an earlier Inslee directive. Districts had been eyeing a potential reopening on April 27.
But their hopes evaporated last week when Inslee extended the statewide stay-at-home order to May 4 in response to the pandemic that has sickened thousands and claimed hundreds of lives.
“This is part and parcel of those efforts to flatten the ‘curve’ as it goes up but (also) to reduce the number of deaths as it goes down,” Inslee said, referring to the effort to reduce infections under the stay-home order. The increase in new coronavirus cases is expected to level off and decline in coming weeks, but continued social distancing is necessary to prevent a relapse, health officials have said.
“Our fatalities are still going up,” Inslee warned. “We have not reached the peak of this pandemic.”
As if to punctuate that, the two counties hardest hit, King and Snohomish, on Monday reported big increases in fatalities. King County reported 14 more deaths, for a total of 222, and Snohomish reported 10 new deaths for a total of 58.
In Snohomish County, the cumulative coronavirus case count on Monday was 1,603 confirmed and 78 “probable,” according to the Snohomish Health District.
Statewide, 8,384 people in Washington have tested positive for COVID-19, and 372 of them have died since the outbreak began in January, according to the state Department of Health.
Monday’s announcement by Inslee forces schools to swiftly transform the delivery of education away from classroom interactions to one reliant on technology and internet speed.
It is “no small feat,” the governor said. He encouraged districts and teachers to “do your best to perfect as much as possible” the distance-learning model.
Reykdal and Inslee vowed that students will not see their grades, nor their grade point averages, affected by the pandemic.
“No student is going to be harmed by this,” Reykdal said.
Inslee and Reykdal acknowledged achieving equity in education will be a challenge when not all students and districts enjoy the same access to digital assets. The two state officials vowed to work with service providers, software developers and business leaders to get as many students connected as possible.
“There’s a reality we’ve got to face,” Inslee said. “In the next several weeks, our K-12 schools are not going to be the best they’ve ever been. But they can be the most creative. They can be the most dedicated. They can be the most passionate about bringing everything they’ve got to the education of our students. I think that’s what we ought to be doing.”
On the front lines, educators are sorting through emotions as they figure out how best to replicate the one-on-one experience of a classroom they’ve lost to the virus.
“It may be the hardest thing teachers have had to do,” said Jared Kink, president of the Everett Education Association, which represents teachers in the Everett School District. “It’s going to be a Herculean effort.”
Ian Saltzman, the Everett schools superintendent, said there’s no road map.
“These are challenging times. Do I know what it will look like right now? No. We will get through this,” he said. “I am impressed with the tenacity of the teachers.”
Monday’s decision applies to all schools — public, private and charter.
It continues to prohibit in-person classes and recreation on school grounds but does not ban school-sponsored child care, nutrition programs and other social services, which districts have been providing in various ways.
But the order allows in-person and on-site educational services deemed essential and necessary under state or federal law if social distancing practices and proper hygiene are followed at all times.
This could enable some tutoring support and one-on-one instruction with high school seniors to help them finish projects required for graduation. Or it might involve instruction to comply with requisites of Individualized Education Programs, the blueprints crafted by teachers and parents to accommodate the learning needs of special education students.
While officials hope schools can resume normal operations in the fall, Reykdal said, he couldn’t promise that.
Meantime, he said “the way of the future” is expanded distance learning online. Reykdal had previously directed public school districts to have an online learning plan in place by March 30.
Snohomish County has more than 139,000 students in public schools and more than 4,000 teachers. Those numbers include three districts — Darrington, Northshore and Stanwood-Camano — that straddle county lines.
While districts have been providing meals and child care to students since the closure, they did not restart academic instruction until last week.
Reykdal directed all public school districts to have an online learning plan in place by March 30.
In the Lakewood School District, a new platform is expected to be rolled out next week. As it evolves, it could include online tutorials, office hours and lessons for small groups or whole classes, Superintendent Scott Peacock said.
“We’re going to need to figure out how to maximize student engagement with these platforms, whether it’s a paper and pencil or online,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re going to be months behind. We all are.”
Graduation ceremonies for high school seniors could also go online, Peacock said.
For some districts, it could be instruction through books, workbooks, phone, paper packets, video conferences or videos. For others, it might mean regular check-ins with students to see what resources they have at home and working to fill any gaps.
“I think everybody is wrestling with, and trying to do better at, providing varying types of instruction that’s leveled and meeting different groups of kids,” Peacock said. “We can’t put one system out there and expect all kids to access it. We still have to meet them where they are, and that is extremely difficult when we don’t see them.”
In Mukilteo, teachers and district administrators are working to phase in distance learning methodically to provide equitable educational opportunities, said Dana Wiebe, president of the Mukilteo Education Association, which represents classroom instructors.
“We know that teaching will be different for months to come,” she said, adding, “we still miss our students terribly.”