Classes in Snohomish County could remain online this fall

Many districts are re-thinking plans to welcome students back to schools as COVID-19 cases spike.

OLYMPIA — Classes could be in session this fall for Snohomish County students, but local administrators might opt to follow the state’s three largest districts and continue with remote learning to kick off the year.

The Seattle, Northshore and Kent school districts have already planned for online learning in September as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the state. Over the next few weeks, school leaders must choose whether to welcome students back for in-person classes in September or continue online.

Those decisions are up to the districts and local health officers, not the state, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal.

“We knew in June that school this fall would be different than usual,” he said in a Wednesday news release. “We are likely to see many school districts decide to take most of their instruction and supports online, while many others will provide in-person learning within the health and safety guidelines. These decisions are made at the local level with local communities.”

In Snohomish County, the Edmonds, Arlington and Lakewood school districts picked a hybrid schedule for their fall reopenings, an approach many districts around the state are eyeing. Students would be divided into two groups that would each attend in-person classes twice a week, and work remotely for the rest of the days.

They all might have to wait as COVID-19 numbers for the county and state continue to trend in the wrong direction.

On Wednesday, state leaders signaled an indefinite pause for counties advancing through the four phases of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan.

“COVID-19, at the moment, is spreading too quickly to safely reopen,” Secretary of Health John Wiesman said during a news conference.

Leaders from the Northshore School District decided it wasn’t safe to reopen schools this fall after guidance from King County health officials.

“As the science of COVID-19 continues to evolve, and our understanding of the impact of young people on the possible community transmission rates become better known, we have a responsibility to better understand that our school district is not an island,” said Superintendent Michelle Reid in a statement. “Further, with the significant number of high risk staff we have in critical positions, the task of reopening schools in person is compounded.”

Across Washington, each school district must submit a reopening plan to Reykdal’s office at least two weeks before classes are scheduled to start. As of Wednesday, eight small districts — none in Snohomish County — had filed theirs and every one contained some level of in-person instruction.

However, Inslee could still impose closures for schools statewide.

It is an “ongoing conversation” between the governor, Reykdal and school leaders, and there’s no timeline for a decision, David Postman, the governor’s chief of staff, told reporters Wednesday. There was consensus for closing campuses in March, but there is not one now, he said.

In Snohomish County, districts are developing back-up plans in case educators have to continue with online learning.

“The goal is to do the hybrid model if we are able to,” said Gary Sabol, a spokesman for the Arlington School District. “There are a lot of things up in the air. We’re trying to develop these plans not knowing if we can implement them. … Our parents want their kids in school but understand distance learning is possible if things change.”

The Reopening Arlington Schools committee, which has been working on plans for weeks, is to approve recommendations July 30. Those will go to the school board for consideration Aug. 10.

“Our goal is always to provide 100% in-person instruction five days a week,” Sabol said. “Unfortunately in the current environment, we cannot do that.”

In the Edmonds district, officials are planning for a hybrid schedule, but the final decision will be “based on the data,” Superintendent Gustavo Balderas said.

He and school board members will discuss the reopening plan during Tuesday’s board meeting.

Andi Nofziger-Meadows, who leads the teacher’s union, said she and other staff have been a part of the district’s planning all along.

“I think we’re all committed to making sure that it’s safe to bring kids back to school,” she said. “We don’t know for sure that’s going to be in September. … I trust that our school board and superintendent will use data and science to make decisions.”

Many districts are looking to local health officials to see if it’s safe to reopen.

“Ongoing discussion and updates with the Snohomish County health district are crucial to how we weigh local conditions moving forward,” Lakewood Superintendent Scott Peacock said.

The Snohomish School District Board of Directors tackled the topic at a meeting Wednesday evening. They’re eyeing three options — hybrid, online learning and home schooling in partnership with the district — and intend to ask parents next week to pick one.

In Lake Stevens, a reopening group is working on recommendations for the district’s school board to consider Aug. 12.

“We are planning for multiple scenarios that can be adjusted based on regularly updated health data to ensure that we are prepared to serve the needs of all of our students,” said Superintendent Amy Beth Cook. “We look forward to returning to school when state health experts determine it’s safe to do so.”

The district is surveying families now and will soon do the same with staff. Results will be shared with board members next month.

Across the county, school leaders have asked parents whether they’re planning to send their kids back to school in the fall, if allowed. Overall, a majority of parents surveyed are in favor of doing so if it’s deemed safe by local health leaders.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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