Washington schools to decide in coming weeks what classrooms will look like in fall

By Jim Allen

The Spokesman-Review

The experts are trying their best to visualize what K-12 education will look like this fall.

If only their binoculars weren’t so clouded — by COVID-19, fiscal concerns and just plain fear.

Small wonder, then, that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction announced this week that barring the sudden emergence of a vaccine or other medical breakthrough, it is considering no less than seven options for next year:

1) Traditional on-site, face-to-face instruction inside school buildings;

2) Split or rotating schedules to meet social-distancing requirements;

3) Split or rotating schedules combined with distance learning;

4) A phased-in reopening with distance learning;

5) Phased-in reopening without distance learning;

6) Continuing remote learning as it’s happening now;

7) Continuing learning to meet any new stay-at-home orders issued by the state.

And in what feels like a reinvention of a school system that’s 150 years old, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal has formed a committee that should be big enough for the task: 123 educators will meet during the next two weeks and send findings to Reykdal’s office.

OSPI is expected to issue guidance to districts by June 8.

Reykdal has emphasized that nothing has been decided and that individual districts will be able to chart their own course within state health guidelines.

“Some counties are moving into Phase 2 and other counties hit harder by the virus are in Phase 1, and I don’t think it will be a surprise that we will see different school districts around the state in the fall going into different models,” OSPI spokeswoman Katy Payne said.

However, this week Reykdal seemed to prioritize the need to be prepared for a continuation of some form of distance learning.

“If we can’t come back in our traditional model, a bunch of this is going to happen at a distance again,” Reykdal said. “That’s what we’re trying to model with this larger work group. What does the fall and next year look like?”

Locally, Spokane Public Schools is doing the same thing: creating a task force that will come back with recommendations.

“But we want to do it in parallel with OSPI,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger told school board members Wednesday night.

Redinger also noted that guidance from state and local health officials “will determine a lot” of how the district proceeds.

That’s important, because individual districts will make their own decisions based on how well their counties and communities are recovering from the virus.

It’s possible that come September, students in Spokane County will still be learning remotely while those in smaller neighboring counties will return to their school buildings.

“Absolutely, we have to recognize that things are still very fluid,” said Adam Swinyard, chief academic officer at Spokane Public Schools.

For now, educators face more questions than answers, and every option comes with significant concerns. In many districts, those worries are compounded by the loss of tax revenue that supports public education.

Here is a closer look at the educational models under consideration by OSPI for the 2020-21 academic year.

• Traditional on-site, face-to-face schools are “not a viable option without dramatic changes to community transmission, or a vaccine,” OSPI said in a release this week.

• Split or rotating schedules have drawn interest around the country as a method to address social-distancing concerns. For example, half of a class would attend on Monday and Wednesday and the other half on Tuesday and Thursday. Students would work largely with paper-and-pencil while at home. The split schedule would boost teacher interaction with students, but might place too many demands on educators as they would be dealing with two groups instead of one.

• Split or rotating schedules with distance learning would meet the same social-distancing concerns as the previous option, but would be augmented with off-site lessons delivered online. However, there would be concerns over equity, especially in low-income neighborhoods where access to laptops and connectivity are problematic. However, teachers might be overburdened. Also, given overcrowding in some classes, it’s unclear whether some classrooms would have enough space with only half the students removed. That’s a big problem in Spokane, where budget constraints have forced the district to give up plans to shrink class sizes next year.

• Phased-in opening without distance learning (by county or district) would also address social distancing demands. A hybrid solution, it could use split schedules — reopening some school facilities while keeping others (cafeterias and playgrounds, for example) closed. Students who are not attending open schools are in waiting mode or are in the current “continuous learning” mode until facilities are further opened.

• Phased-in opening with distance learning, another hybrid model, would also meet social distancing demands while incorporating the above models. Staggering decisions would be based on county or district mandates or priorities. Students who are not attending open schools are participating in distance learning.

• The current model for continuous learning is “not a viable approach for the 2020-21 school year,” the OSPI release states.

• Continuous learning could be offered in an improved form, but OSPI has offered no details on what that might look like.