Washington state’s message to families was clear Thursday: Schools will reopen for in-person instruction in the fall. And bring a mask.
In the midst of ongoing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction announced its expectation that schools will reopen come August and September.
The highly anticipated announcement comes after weeks of work by a group that included more than 120 educators and community leaders from across the state. Schools have been closed since March 13, when Gov. Jay Inslee announced statewide closures because of the novel coronavirus.
In a press conference, Superintendent Chris Reykdal noted that local or state health officials could decide to close school again depending on the spread of the virus, but was optimistic that students will be able to return.
“The very best thing we can do is get back to schools,” Reykdal said. “It’s not a modified schedule, it’s not an alternative to face-to-face learning. We’re telling you today … we built a policy framework that will allow our schools to open across the state.”
What reopening might look like is up to individual school districts. More concrete, however, is the guidance around health, safety and hygiene. Students and staff will be expected to wear cloth masks or face shields, unless they have a disability or health concern that makes wearing a mask impossible.
Those entering school buildings should also expect to be quizzed on whether they have symptoms of COVID-19, including a cough, fever, shortness of breath or body aches. Anyone showing symptoms of the virus cannot enter school buildings, nor can anyone who has been in close contact with someone with a confirmed or suspected case of the virus.
The report also highlights the need for students to stay 6 feet apart in the classroom, on the bus and at lunch. The state advised canceling field trips and other large group gatherings, as well as limiting or adjusting programs like choir that require students to remove their masks.
“We have to do our part,” Reykdal said. “We have to wear masks. We have to maintain social distancing.”
A full return
Assuming districts are able to manage social distancing protocol, some schools may be able to reopen at full capacity, Reykdal said. Think students spread out in gymnasiums or cafeterias to maintain 6 feet of distance and limited passing periods to keep students out of hallways.
Some schools, however, may have to operate on a hybrid model, including:
• Split or rotating schedules depending on student need or grade level, coupled with distance learning the rest of the week.
• Phased-in openings that allow some students to return to class more quickly than others depending on grade or student need.
• An improved version of remote learning, described by OSPI as “Continuous Learning 2.0.”
Local plans pending
Most Clark County school districts have not announced their plans for reopening schools this fall. Evergreen Public Schools Superintendent Mike Merlino hosted a virtual presentation on the issue Thursday evening, noting that more than 80 percent of students and parents surveyed in that district hoped for a return to school full-time.
School districts must provide the state with their plan for reopening two weeks before the start of the school year.
Reykdal also reflected on the protests occurring across the United States in response to the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police last month. Reykdal described police violence against black Americans as a “symptom of a much bigger system” of systemic racism in the United States, including public education and health care access.
The work group’s report urges school districts to fix gaps for marginalized students — including students of color, students with disabilities, and low-income students.
“Our communities of color are tired of this experience and they need allies and we have a responsibility to do that,” Reykdal said.