In the midst of increasing pressure from Washington, D.C., to reopen schools in the fall, area officials are rejecting the notion that the federal government will force districts to return to normal operations before it’s safe to do so.
Clark County school districts are in the midst of determining how to safely reopen schools. While district surveys show families overwhelmingly support a return to in-person instruction, districts they may have to take a phased-in approach to reopening to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“If state guidelines and public health data don’t support a full return to school, I can’t imagine how the district could fully reopen,” said Pat Nuzzo, spokeswoman for Vancouver Public Schools.
Yet as cases continue to rise in the United States, the Trump administration last week ramped up its insistence that schools reopen to full capacity in the fall, threatening to withhold federal funding for schools that opt for phased-in reopening or continued online instruction.
Education funding lies with Congress, meaning President Donald Trump and his cabinet don’t have the authority to withhold dollars from schools. Furthermore, federal funding makes up only a small portion of district budgets, though is funding that disproportionately serves school districts’ most vulnerable students.
Take Evergreen Public Schools, for example. The district is Clark County’s largest, with nearly 25,000 students and a 2019-2020 general fund budget of about $385.3 million, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Of the district’s $382.1 million in revenue, about $24.4 million is from federal funding. Those dollars fund programs serving low-income students, English-language learners and students with disabilities.
“It is not the federal government’s role to step in to these local decisions” about reopening, the state superintendent’s office said in a statement. “In addition, federal funds are targeted based on student need, so cuts to those funds would hurt students.”
Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday called Trump’s rhetoric and threats against schools “hogwash” and “unbelievably callous.”
“Decisions about school and how to have it on-site or otherwise will remain with the state of Washington,” he said. “These are Washington students, and Washington has the legal authority to make a decisions about their education.”
Parents seeking firm answers on how and when schools will reopen will have to wait a while longer. Districts have until two weeks before the start of school to finalize their plans, which are subject to change as COVID-19 case numbers grow.
Department of Health guidance is for those at school to maintain 6 feet of distance from each other, for schools to conduct daily health screenings of everyone entering the building and for all occupants to wear face masks. OSPI has also advised districts to come up with a plan on how to isolate students and staff who begin showing signs of COVID-19, and to be prepared to move fully online if necessary.
Still, district surveys show the vast majority of students and staff prefer some kind of return to the classroom. At Vancouver Public Schools, 95 percent of the 1,759 of school staff surveyed said they would return to school “always, often or sometimes” if appropriate safety precautions were taken; of the 3,308 students surveyed, 92 percent reported the same desire to return to school.
Clark County’s largest school districts — Vancouver, Evergreen and Battle Ground — are weighing possible hybrid options for students, which would have some students coming to school part time while the rest of the class works remotely, then switching.
“Washington’s schools should continue their local planning process to determine the schedule that works best for their community and maintains the health and safety of their students and staff,” OSPI said in last week’s statement. “The health experts have told us the steps schools need to take to ensure health and safety of students and staff, and in order to meet these guidelines, many schools will have to operate on a rotating schedule.”