As social distancing restrictions ease across Washington, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is preparing for how best to reopen schools come fall.
The state education department is expected to announce early next week how schools can reopen for the 2020-2021 school year. Educators across the state have spent weeks discussing options, from reopening schools on a split schedule, to continuing virtual education, to some hybrid of the two.
While reopening is an obstacle in and of itself, underneath the surface are questions of equity: Will all students be able to access whatever programs their districts put in place? How will families return to work if their children are attending class only a few days a week?
Maria Flores, OSPI’s executive director for the Center for the Improvement of Student Learning, described the upcoming school year as a complex tree of unique situations and challenges families will face.
“How will we know what each family’s unique situation is, and how will they be able to accommodate that?”
A group of more than 120 educators, union leaders and community members have spent the last month weighing options for returning to school, including the following possible scenarios:
• Split or rotating schedules by age, classroom, content, student need or family choice.
• Split or rotating schedules that include distance learning online or via paper packets.
• A staggered opening with or without distance learning.
• An improved version of distance learning.
Flores, however, said all those options present challenges for families used to sending their children to school five days a week. There may be gaps in services, for example, for students with disabilities who need access to special services. Students living in poverty whose families may not have access to child care outside of school may struggle with a split schedule.
“We realize we’re going to have families at all different places along the continuum to do a split or rotating schedule,” she said.
Meanwhile, with standardized testing on pause while the pandemic rages on, Flores said it can be difficult to measure how students may be falling behind.
“We are going to see the (opportunity gap) widen and not have the data because we didn’t do spring testing,” Flores said.
Child care challenges
Child care providers have also expressed concerns, noting that the pandemic has forced about 80 of Clark County’s roughly 200 licensed child care centers to close. That means families who are looking for somewhere to send their school-age children on days they’re off of school may run into road blocks.
Furthermore, added Michelle Aguilar, manager of Child Care Aware of Southwest Washington, child care providers are also small businesses. It may not be economically sustainable to take students on a part-time basis, particularly while they also are limiting class sizes and completing additional cleaning.
“It’s going to be even harder for them to make money to keep their doors open,” Aguilar said.
Area school districts are awaiting state guidance before announcing their own plans to reopen schools.
“Equity and inclusion are top priorities in the district, so our plans for the fall will insure all students … receive needed services and supports,” Evergreen Public Schools spokeswoman Gail Spolar said by email.
Area school districts have been providing meals, checking out computers and mobile internet hotspots and providing other services to students who may lack access to the necessary supports.
Still, Flores said the pandemic has exposed inequities in education that have always existed.
“Education is the great equalizer,” Flores said. “This pandemic, in a weird way, is an equalizer in that we’re all struggling. We all have different needs. It’s revealing them now.”