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Majority of Washington students will be starting school year fully remote

Schools across Washington state are starting to resume classes this week for the fall in some format, whether remote learning, in-person, or with a hybrid model. State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, joined Denny Heck, U.S. Representative for Washington’s 10th congressional district, for the third of a series of seven virtual town halls focused on the education system’s response to COVID-19.

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As a new school year kicks off statewide, Reykdal says 95% of students are starting the year fully remote in Washington, while 3-4% are starting in a hybrid model, and just 1% are in person.

The governor and the state department of health instituted health thresholds or categories, declaring counties as high, medium, or low risk based on the community transmission. High risk counties are those with more than 75 cases per 100,000 people for 14 days, medium are 25-75 cases, while low risk counties are below 25.

“We’ve got some districts below 25 and they’re opening face to face,” Reykdal said. “We’ve got another couple dozen that are in hybrid models because they’re in that medium risk category. But many, many districts are in either medium or high risk counties and they are choosing to start the year remotely.”

A fair way to describe the public health officials’ perspective, Reykdal says, would be to say that high-risk counties are in person, medium are hybrid, and low risk are online, but the final decisions are ultimately up to the local school boards.

“Technically, at the end of the day, this is up to a local school board,” Reykdal said. “And while they’re being super diligent to that framework, they could forcibly open even in high risk, but they are choosing wisely to follow the health experts on this.”

The governor has the statutory authority through emergency powers to close schools, which is what Gov. Inslee did in the spring. Local health officials, as seen in Pierce County, and local schools boards can also make the decision to close schools. No one can force a school into opening, however, not even the state superintendent.

Primarily, the local school districts decide when to open. Districts could, even pre-COVID, decide to offer only online learning, Reykdal says, but they usually don’t due to the critical wraparound services provided for kids in schools.

This fall, Reykdal is confident that the online learning experience for families and students will be “light years” ahead of the spring.

“Last spring, about the same time Gov. Inslee closed our schools for in person learning, virtually every state within a week or so did the same thing,” he said. “About 53 million U.S. school children were not in their physical buildings for learning. We were a state that kind of flipped the switch though and said we are going to do some continuous learning.”

No one was prepared for this, he added.

Since then, Washington state has instituted guidance that is a “dramatic transformation” from the spring in terms of remote learning requirements.

“This time, [families] will experience school districts that have a mandatory requirement to provide their learning as they would a regular year. And what I mean by that is 180 school days, which they’ve got some flexibility around, 1,000 instructional hours, so it is a full year,” Reykdal said. “Those instructional hours will look a little bit, and sometimes a lot, like what they’d experience at school — teachers delivering lessons, sometimes students working independently, but all of it structured and guided by a professional, certificated teacher.”

There are daily and weekly schedules, and students will be assessed and graded.

“This is a full-blown remote learning model,” Reykdal said.

While online learning is not ideal, Reykdal admitted, Washington state is in a much better spot than it was in the spring as teachers are more prepared and there is better infrastructure in place. When it is safe, Reykdal looks forward to having students back in classrooms as there is no replacement for in-person learning.

“Our schools have been built like robust little wraparound support systems, and that’s what we want to get back to when it’s safe to do so,” he said.

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Resuming school in person largely depends on the community transmission of COVID-19. Reykdal says it will take everyone working together to succeed.

“We don’t get to come back to school, according to public health experts, until we get our cases down,” he said. “So while we are struggling through this together, we’ve got to wear masks, we’ve got to stay physically distanced, and we cannot take this lightly because those case counts are going to continue to cause public health to recommend that we stay remote. But we are truly, truly in this together.”

The virtual town hall series hosted by Heck continues Tuesday, Sept. 1, at 5 p.m. with Jan Yoshiwara, executive director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

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