Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency order this week for the partial and gradual reopening of in-person instruction at public schools received a mixed reaction in the state Legislature, The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield noted Wednesday. For a change, Republican leaders were praising an emergency order from Inslee, while Democrats were “in all kinds of different spots on it,” according to House Leader Laurie Jinkins, more focused on providing school districts with the resources they’ll need to comply with the order than on the order itself.
Both takes have it right; even though schools will be offering only a couple days a week of in-school instruction for the last two months of the school year, that return to near-normalcy must begin soon, and schools will need resources and support to do it safely. Thanks to passage of federal covid relief packages last year and this month, school districts will have that support, including $1.9 billion for the state’s K-12 schools.
But there’s much that will need to follow, especially during summer and as the 2021-22 school year approaches.
Under the order signed by Inslee on Tuesday, school districts must provide parents the option of at least two days of on-campus learning — 30 percent of learning hours — by April 5 for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and by April 19 for those in the seventh through 12th grade. The balance of daily learning will continue remotely; and parents have the option to stick with online instruction only.
Inslee, arguably, has been among the more cautious governors regarding coronavirus measures, a point that has been often held against him by Republicans and others when it came to business and other restrictions.
Yet that caution has paid off. Currently, Washington state ranks near the bottom for total per capita cases among the 50 states at 4,611 per 100,000, compared against North Dakota’s U.S.-leading 13,273 per 100,000.
Inslee, in mandating the reopening of schools, is being no less cautious; it’s that a reconsideration of competing risks has become necessary.
Remote learning has done what was intended in continuing some level of learning while protecting students, families, teachers and others at public schools from covid-19; but it couldn’t provide the breadth of what the school learning environment long has. The classroom provides the best setting where teachers have the resources, training and experience to optimally work with students and where students have the best opportunities for socialization and development of interpersonal skills. As well, many students rely on services at schools for nutrition, physical activity and connection with trained professionals regarding emotional health and learning disabilities.
The toll of a year of remote learning on the mental health of students may be most clear now.
“I have reviewed the medical evidence regarding the condition of our students, both from a covid transmission standpoint and from a mental health standpoint,” Inslee said during a news conference last week. “In the recent days there is now, unfortunately, undeniably, a mental health care crisis in our state regarding our youth.”
Dr. Nwando Anyaoku, chief health equity officer at Swedish Health Services, told Crosscut last week that Swedish has seen “an extraordinary increase” in the number of people admitted because of a mental health crisis, with young people being particularly vulnerable.
“This mental health crisis is a real and present danger to a whole generation,” Anyaoku said.
As well, remote learning may have set back some of the state’s more vulnerable students, those already at a disadvantage in low-income communities and those from Black, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander families, whose graduation rates lag 11 to 25 percentage points below those of white students, according to a 2017 Washington Roundtable report.
“Our fear is that students who were already behind, who now have fallen further behind, might be lost forever,” as graduates, said Washington Roundtable’s Neil Strege, during a recent conversation with The Herald Editorial Board.
While all students will need some time and assistance to catch up in resuming their studies, those who were most academically at risk will need additional help, resources and class time. The Roundtable, an advocacy group whose members include the state’s leading businesses, is pressing to see an expanded roll-out of summer programs and tutoring for those students most threatened by covid’s learning gap.
“We believe the Legislature should be investing resources in some sort of intervention that focuses on students who are furthest behind,” Strege said, with diagnostic assessments at the end of the school year and ramped-up summer class offerings.
Legislation in the Senate that initially sought an investigation of alternative school calendars has since been amended to offer a range of funding, grants and pilot programs to expand instruction between the school years, including a week-long program before classes resume in September, which would help students re-engage in learning, physical activity and social interaction; “summer training,” in a sense. Senate Bill 5147, would also direct the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, to establish a program to allow up to 20 school districts to launch a 180-day calendar that stretches over the course of a full year, rather than the traditional school year, with a preference for a district’s higher percentage of students enrolled in free and reduced-price meals.
Nor is it too soon to look beyond this summer. If the gradual reopening of schools is to continue, the state and school districts will have to consider the space constraints of the school buildings themselves. Many schools will struggle to manage even two days a week because the state’s covid guidelines for schools mandate that 6 feet of space be kept between each student’s desk; there’s a limit to the number of kids that will fit in a classroom at that level of distancing.
Recent studies, however, may allow an adjustment to that particular guideline. Researchers and some public health officials are calling on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the classroom spacing mandate to 3 feet, rather than 6 feet.
A recent study in Massachusetts found no significant difference in coronavirus case rates between schools where students were spaced 3 feet apart than in schools where 6 feet was the standard. As well, the World Health Organization, has recommend spacing of 1 meter, or about 3 feet.
The governor and state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal no doubt will be watching for any change in recommendations from the CDC in the coming months, just as all are watching vaccination rates progress through the summer and — we can all hope — case rates continue their decline. At the same time, there remains a heightened responsibility for all — kids and adults — to continue conscientious uses of face masks and hand washing.
As much as we’re looking forward to nights out at restaurants, movies and concerts and family gatherings for the Fourth of July, what every family with school-age children is most eager to see return is a near-normal routine for school and the morning rush to catch the bus.