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Superintendent Reykdal: Concern over reopening schools ‘isn’t matching’ with science

School districts in Washington state had been required to submit a reopening plan to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction this past fall, and now schools are being asked for an update.

“This fall, they had a requirement to get us plans. They all did. They did a great job with that,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “We saw lots of districts open up around the state. We’ve got more than probably 140 or 150 districts where their elementary kids are in at least a couple days a week in hybrid models, some full time.”

“This new plan due for them is really an update. It’s a, ‘hey, you’ve learned a lot now, some of you haven’t been able to open yet. There’s a new round of federal money coming. Demonstrate for us now between now and the end of this regular school year, what is your plan to further open, or if you haven’t at all yet to in-person learning, how will you initiate that?’ So it’s an update of what they’re up to now,” he added.

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As Reykdal pointed out, there had been an explosion of COVID-19 cases in the state since the original reopening plans were due in September, so they need to be updated.

“Again, best laid plans,” he said. “We had a really big explosion of cases in our state, so they’ve had to amend some of those. This one that we’re asking for now, due March 1st, as a result of legislative action, says, ‘OK, now what’s your plan for the rest of the year? You had some time to adjust it, some things came your way that you didn’t anticipate. What’s the game plan now, between here and the end of the year?'”

It’s been said that schools need money to reopen safety, which, broadly speaking, Reykdal says is true. Even if it was just about personal protective equipment, cleaning, and screening, it would be more costly, he says, but it’s worse than that.

“Districts are at risk right now of losing a ton of transportation money because even though they’ve had kids learning remotely, they’re bringing students in now. They’re starting to bring them in, and they need that money now,” Reykdal said. “But we have these funding formulas that start to slow down the flow of funds to districts because they’re based on prior action, either this fall or last year, the end of last year. So we definitely need resources. The feds have stepped up big time with another $700 million, and we think the state will help a little bit.”

“Just for context our system is $13, $14 billion a year, so this isn’t a ton of new money, but it’s really essential,” he added.

In terms of lost instruction from a year of remote or hybrid learning, Reykdal says there are a couple things being considered to make up for the time, including a rebalancing of the school year.

“First, every district this spring has to evaluate learning impacts, and social emotional impacts,” he said. “They have a responsibility to do that in the new law that was just passed here a couple days ago, and it’s subject to the federal money that they get.”

“And then the question is, is it something you can do this summer, right away? If you’re still remote, if you’re still not able to go in person, it doesn’t make sense to pile on more remote learning, say, this summer,” he continued. “So we’re asking them to think about it over many years. Think about how you would create interventions for kids this spring, this summer, next year, beyond. Some students are going to need a lot more help to really feel like they’ve fully engaged in learning expectations by their age cohort and grade band.”

Reykdal says the OSPI is challenging districts to think about how much learning loss typically happens in a normal year every summer.

“It’s three steps forward, one step back,” he said. ” … We think it is time to have a much more serious conversation about permanently balancing our calendar. So maybe not more days — stretch them out so you don’t get this 10 or 11 week desert of learning in the summer for way too many kids.”

“They also lose out on nutrition, a bunch of them, and health supports, nursing supports. Our schools have become really important supports for kids, so short-term investments, short-term work, and then much longer contemplations to rebalance our school year,” Reykdal said.

For Reykdal, his biggest concern is the health and safety of students and staff when reopening schools.

“Number one, health and safety,” he said in response to what keeps him up at night. “We’ve learned a lot about this virus. So I feel super confident in the research and the protocols we’ve put in place, particularly to open K -5. So I really want elementary kids back because I believe it is the best way for them to maintain momentum and learning, and catch up in some cases.”

“But I also will say to you, there are variants coming, and there are all kinds of things that still aren’t known about this,” he added. “So it’s not as if I want folks to rush in. I want them to have a plan that they can sustain that continues to build momentum.”

He also says he gets concerned when people don’t like the science, even though he says it’s clear now that elementary schools can start reopening safely, with protocols in place.

“And then what keeps me up at night too are people who say until we get a vaccine for everybody, we shouldn’t come back,” he added. “I’ve got to be candid with you all: 20% of adults won’t get it, kids won’t get it for a year or two, [it’s] 90-95% effective, even when you do have it, [and] new variants are coming. If you’re somebody who says no in-person learning until we get vaccines for everybody, you’re effectively saying you’re willing to be out of school for years, and that is just not OK. So I’m getting nervous about the rhetoric that isn’t matching up with the science right now.”

Gov. Inslee: Asking educators to return isn’t ‘asking more than we’ve asked for our grocery clerks’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new operational strategy for reopening K-12 schools on Friday, available online here. The first step in determining when and how to reopen safely, the CDC says, involves assessing the level of community transmission.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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