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Return to in-person learning in Washington will take ‘tremendous community effort’

The exterior of Bothell High School is seen on February 27, 2020 in Bothell, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Despite the president’s demands for a return to in-person learning for school aged Americans, many local districts are moving forward with plans for remote learning this fall.

Seattle Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, just announced Wednesday that they’re going to go ahead with remote learning and potentially outdoor learning. All districts must submit their plans to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction two weeks before opening.

“We’ve got some Eastern Washington districts that open pretty early, traditionally, and so those are just barely starting to roll into our office now,” State Superintendent Chris Reykdal told Seattle’s Morning News. “Most on the West side will have another week or two before they submit their plans.”

Students and parents should know soon, if they don’t know already, what their district has decided.

Recognizing that closing schools in March and April forced a quick shift to remote learning, Reykdal says one of the main goals is to have an improved remote learning experience, which starts with making sure all students are able to connect. There have already been tens of thousands of additional sign-ups for hardware devices and connectivity around the state, he says.

“And we’re just launching federal dollars, literally as we speak today, that we think can close the gap for another 50 or 60,000 families so they get high quality connection, which will really enhance learning experience remotely,” Reykdal added.

Reykdal is sure that remote learning will be better in the fall than it was in the spring.

“Turning an entire country to remote learning, as has happened last spring, where all 50 states closed down the in-person learning, that system is not prepared for that — 51 million kids across the country did not have the structure in place, and none of the states did at scale,” he said. “But we definitely see some pretty good signs, much more robust this time — daily schedules, weekly schedules, taking attendance, we’ve got evaluation of student learning going on. We’ve got a lot more structure to this thing.”

“We’ve had to turn on a dime,” he added. “And in public education, it doesn’t always do that. But, boy, the experience this fall will be dramatically better than this spring, but still no substitute for high quality, in person learning.”

As far as an eventual return to in-person learning, Reykdal says there has to be a change in community transmission rates before it’s safe, but does believe it could be possible short of a vaccine.

“I think there are community transmission rates and data that would make it possible,” he said. “You saw what the governor and DOH did, and I always remind folks I have no authority to close or open schools forcibly. The governor, however, made that decision last spring when he believed the cases were too high.”

There’s now a framework for districts based on whether they’re in high, medium, or low risk counties.

Gov. Inslee recommends most Washington schools use distance learning in fall

“Virtually all districts in high and medium are starting remotely,” Reykdal said. “But we do have some districts around the state who are in low-risk based on their viral loads in their communities, and they are opening in hybrid models or fully face to face.”

The decisions still remain up to local leaders, he added.

“Our state, unfortunately, had this tremendous lowering of cases through April and May, and things were looking very positive. And then at the end of May and the beginning of June, cases started to spike up again,” he said. “States around the country who tried to do some modified openings have seen cases really take off in some of their schools, and so mass congregate settings are not going to work in the short term. But smaller groups, 1 to 1 supports, and these hybrid models can be effective.”

Around the world, countries who have been really rigorous with their processes have had some limited success, Reykdal said.

“But right now, we don’t see the larger societal behavior bringing those numbers down to get them out of high and medium risk,” he said. “And if that isn’t the case, I think it’s going to be hard for those communities to accept that. But it’s a community decision. It is a local decision.”

“We need a vaccine, but we also have to get our transmission rates down, and then we can begin to do more and more and more in person learning,” Reykdal added. “… We can get back to school in person, short of the vaccine, but it would take a tremendous community effort right now. We’ve got to wear our face coverings, got to be physically distanced.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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