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State’s return to in-person learning has been ‘very different East vs West’

Students sit in pop-up tents during wind ensemble class at Wenatchee High School on Feb. 26, 2021. The school used pop-up tents as COVID-19 enclosures for its music programs as students return to classrooms. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

As of Monday, all schools in Washington state must offer at least part-time in-person learning for any student who wants it. While the state doesn’t keep track of the number of students who are learning in person, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal says numbers are good overall.

“We do have a monitoring report that we update every single week, districts submit their data,” Reykdal told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “As you know, there’s two stories here. There’s the volume of districts, right? We have 295 school districts, but 30 of them have half of all of our students. So of the 265 who have the other half of students, they tend to be small and rural.”

“They’ve been open for quite some time, elementary to high school. And so we see really good numbers there and very high percentages,” he said. “It’s the central Puget Sound districts, some of the larger ones, that are just now getting to their high school students in the last week or two. We now have all of them with a good plan, but it’s been very different East versus West.”

Back to school but not back to normal

The Seattle Times posted an analysis, which Reykdal provided a quote for, that found school districts that primarily serve white children and districts in counties where a majority voted for Donald Trump last year reopened to more students sooner than more liberal leaning or racially diverse communities.

Reykdal said this did not come as a surprise to him.

“Maybe two years ago, if somebody had told me we’re going to have a global pandemic and this would be the trend, I would have said, well, I want to wait and see it,” he said. “But the moment this became a reality last January, February, and March, the political rhetoric around this from Washington, D.C., to folks in our state very much reflected the political, cultural divide.”

“At first it was a hoax, and at first it was just going to go away right away and it was, you know, masks were a violation of individual liberties, there was lots of ideology around this and you began to see the pattern established bon who was going to take more risk around this and who was going to take a more scientific approach and, sadly, we’ve seen those numbers bear out in terms of cases, hospitalizations, and mortality rates,” he added.

In terms of the return to in-person learning after a year, and in some cases more than a year, of remote learning, Reykdal says there’s a lot of talk about recovery and acceleration.

“For most of our students, we have a lot of time to figure out assessments on academic learning, but also their social, emotional, and mental health. That’s becoming more important, I think,” he said.

If students can’t be supported and feel confident in their return to school and their relationships, then academics won’t follow, Reykdal explained.

“That’s an important order to get right,” he said. “So already there’s lots of federal dollars pouring in. We see districts planning summer camps and summer recovery. We’ve got grants going to community based organizations to help with families who need additional supports this summer.”

“And then you’ve got school districts all submitting plans to us by June 1 to tell us what are you going to do with that state and federal money to really develop academic recovery and acceleration and assess your students’ mental health,” he added.

Delayed state tests will still show what happened in learning this year

Reykdal says he feels good about those plans, though he does worry for juniors and seniors who have less time to recover.

“We’ve got some options for them,” he added. “And higher [education] is going to just do a great job continuing to be flexible about admissions. But for most students, they’re going to have a lot of recovery time and this isn’t going to be overnight. This is going to be a multi-year strategy. And thankfully, our federal aid dollars coming, we have about 2.5 years to spend those dollars and pace ourselves.”

Those options for juniors and seniors, Reykdal explained, include legislation passed to give them more flexibility in credits. There are some credits that can’t be waived, but there are other solutions.

“We see a lot of students getting what are called no credits or incomplete. We didn’t see our F’s really grow statewide, we saw this no credit assignment, which means districts say that this is a student who’s struggling, they’re going to need initial support here, but we see that they’ve got competency in that subject. They’re going to be okay, but we need some time with them,” Reykdal said. “That’s where you’re seeing that happen now. They’re returning students to classrooms now and they’re really focusing on the students — or even this summer, some of those students are going to catch up and grab credit to graduate on time.”

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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