More than 94% of public school students in state learning remotely this fall, new data shows

By Dahlia Bazzaz

The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — More than 94% of Washington state public school kids beginning classes this month are doing so almost entirely remotely, according to new data from the state education department.

The numbers, which the state said were current as of last Friday, are the first official account of how the state’s 300-plus school districts, charter schools and tribal compact schools planned to resume teaching after a summer of constant tinkering with reopening plans.

It comes about a month after Gov. Jay Inslee and other state officials declared it was unsafe for the vast majority of schools to reopen their buildings given the coronavirus case counts in their communities. At the time of announcement, the state Department of Health (DOH) unveiled a long-awaited guide to help districts decide what approach to take based on their county’s case numbers.

Though Inslee’s call was not a mandate, and the DOH’s guidance was not legally binding, about 82% of districts deemed high-risk by this guide — those located in areas that had more than 75 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period — followed health officials’ advice to conduct most learning remotely, with some exceptions for small groups of students with special needs.

A recent national estimate found that about half of all U.S. children were learning virtually only this fall — significantly lower than Washington.

Even districts in counties considered lower-risk planned to start remotely, including school systems in the San Juan Islands. The dataset shows 219 districts as being in high-risk areas, but nearly 250 districts still planned a remote-only start, suggesting some places are taking more a more conservative approach than health officials are advising.

Though the number of students they serve is small in comparison, there were also many districts that planned to reopen buildings despite high case counts. That could be for a number of reasons, including political views about schools reopening, a very small enrollment or even a lack of broadband access in families’ homes. Of the 58 school systems teaching in-person completely or partially, more than half were considered high-risk by the state.

The Mead School District, in Spokane County, is the largest school district to begin in a hybrid mode of online and in-person schooling, with 10,771 students. The Toledo School District, about an hour drive north of Vancouver, Washington, is the largest district to start completely in-person. It has 864 students. Both districts are in higher-risk counties.