Jana Hoberg, an eighth-grad U.S. history teacher at Washington Middle School in Yakima, Wash., interacts with students in May 2020 through a Google Meet session regarding a Costco mask policy.

With most Yakima County public schools planning to start fall classes with remote learning, administrators say it will be improved significantly from the spring.

West Valley called the system “more robust” than remote learning in the spring. Others, like Grandview, Selah and East Valley, said the approach would be “enhanced.”

“The community is going to be impressed with the upgrade in our response and our services, as compared to the unplanned switch to a distance learning model in March,” Yakima School District Superintendent Trevor Greene said earlier this week.

“That was a change that obviously caught the entire world of education off guard, and now knowing that there has been a summer to prepare and there will be an additional couple of weeks before the start of school, our families and our community will see a very different and consistent response across our system.”

But what makes the fall approach different?

Here are some answers to questions about the new school year, with details on how Yakima School District administrators say staff will be shifting to improve the experience for students and their families.

What’s different statewide?

With the quick shift to remote learning statewide in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the state did not require attendance to be tracked and allowed teachers to be flexible about grading. The state also suspended standardized testing and enforcement of individualized education plans.

This year, testing, IEPs, attendance and grading are back on the table.

While schools in high-risk communities like Yakima County are encouraged to start the school year remotely, they’re not required to do so. Most districts have provided at least a minimum schedule for remote learning so families can plan for things like meals and child care. But districts have said the remote learning period could be extended if COVID-19 trends don’t improve locally.

Still, the Yakima Health District gave districts the discretion to meet in-person with high-need students in groups of five or less per classroom. This could provide an opportunity for in-person learning for students with disabilities, English language learners, students in foster care or those experiencing homelessness, for example. Some districts are also considering using this option for students without internet access or children in kindergarten through second grade.

What new options/resources does the Yakima School District offer?

The district is expanding its broadband capacity and expects that soon, all students within its boundaries should be able to use a school internet connection from home. It also shifted to a 1-1 model, meaning it has devices such as laptops available for every student in the district to take home.

The Yakima School District is not alone in this — most districts across the county have expanded device capacity and plan to continue doing so this fall.

While the Yakima School District has long offered a fully online learning model for students in sixth grade and up through Yakima Online, that’s now been extended across K-12. That means families who don’t want to pivot to in-person learning can commit on a semester or yearlong basis to a remote learning model.

The program allows students to work at their own pace, allowing students who want to jump ahead to graduate early, said Rob Darling, YSD assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. It also provides an opportunity for teachers considered high-risk for the coronavirus — such as those with health conditions or over age 60 — to teach through the platform.

Some students will start the year remotely and may pivot to in-person learning later in the year, but will learn with their classroom teacher and classmates.

What about the course load?

Students and teachers struggled with various courses and platforms in the spring. In response, schools are streamlining platforms and apps.

The Yakima School District is also prioritizing learning standards. This year, teaching and learning will focus on meeting goals in reading, writing, math, science, speaking and listening.

“We’re going to really trim it down so we’re teaching just a handful of standards and they’re teaching them really, really well. So it takes a lot of the burden off,” said Darling.

This gives more time in the day to focus on the most crucial learning, he said, conceding that some of the most fun subjects might be lost during as a result.

While the district will maintain its semester system, this year will look a bit different for middle and high school students. Instead of six courses every day across a semester, upper-level students will have three courses for the first nine weeks of the term and three others for the second nine weeks, said Darling. This means both students and teachers will have less to juggle at once.

What about support systems?

During the school year, paraprofessionals will be an integral part of making sure students have access to the same help they would have by raising their hands in a classroom, said Darling. Some paraprofessionals will serve as tutors on demand, working flex shifts that might start later in the day so they’re available to students in the afternoons and evenings.

The district will also conduct boot camps for parents this month. There will be segments showing how to use Google Classroom, for example, that can be watched live or viewed later. They will be available in Spanish and English, and might be broken down by basic, intermediate and advanced skills, said Darling. Student-friendly editions will also be made available.

The district also has a 24/7 tech help line and is working on making a clear point-person for parents to get support from someone at their student’s school “to form a supportive relationship,” said Darling.

What about students in tech programs?

There are some details to be worked out to make sure the roughly 300 students in programs at Yakima School District’s YV-Tech are able to finish their programs. Darling said students need hands-on learning in programs like nursing or welding to get industry certification or credit. The district has brought on a virtual welding program, but is still determining if and how students can be brought on campus on a rotating basis for lab work.

It’s also more challenging to break up the semester for tech students to lower their workload, since YV-Tech students usually do core coursework on top of their three tech courses. Darling said individualized plans would likely need to be developed to accommodate these students this school year.

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka