Washington’s schools chief said Thursday that he expects school districts to reopen buildings and return to in-person learning next school year, as long as public health guidelines allow them to do so.
The goal: Resume regular, face-to-face schedules for most or all students at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.
State schools chief Chris Reykdal announced the plans minutes after releasing a 55-page document that lays out what instruction could look like come fall. The guidance is the result of work by more than 120 educators, parents, students and community organizations that have met a few times over the past month to hash out details about whether — and how — to resume school.
It won’t be school as usual. Desks will be spaced 6 feet apart. Students may attend class in gymnasiums or lunch rooms. Schools are expected to screen students and staff for coronavirus symptoms before they enter school buildings. “Everyone’s going to need to wear face coverings,” Reykdal said.
The move has raised health and safety concerns among the Washington Education Association teachers union, and some members of education advocacy groups worry the plans were made hastily and without the input of families. Heading back to in-person class could also create logistical headaches for schools with small classrooms or those that lack extra space to spread out students during the school day.
“What’s going to end up happening is a teacher is going to spend half the time getting his or her classroom together and the other half trying to keep masks on,” said Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition.
Some of Reykdal’s changes to the school year come at the suggestion of the state’s Department of Health, which participated in the education department’s workgroup. For instance, masks or other face coverings are required, and anyone with coronavirus symptoms, or those in contact with someone who tests positive, won’t be allowed on school grounds. Schools should also develop new cleaning and disinfecting strategies and consider asking students to eat lunch in classrooms, the plan says.
The education department is also asking districts to make contingency plans that would allow them to quickly switch from in-person instruction to remote learning if a new wave of coronavirus cases emerges. For instance, districts should add days to their school calendar in case of emergency short-term building closures, officials said. Districts should also be ready to conduct learning remotely if schools are forced to close again for an extended period.
It’s not clear whether school sports and activities will resume, but Reykdal said such a decision will be made in the coming months.
The choice to reopen represents a departure from earlier statements by education officials that returning to classrooms in the fall on a regular schedule was unlikely; they were instead weighing options such as rotating students through buildings or phasing in start dates.
On Thursday, Reykdal said the decision came out of new scientific research on coronavirus in children and the effectiveness of masks in preventing the virus’s spread. The science isn’t yet settled on how well children transmit coronavirus, but several studies and case reports suggest they’re spared from its worst effects. Some studies suggest school closures helped curb the virus.
The guidance leaves most details up to school districts, and raises serious practical challenges. For instance, schools that use portable classrooms may struggle to space out desks in small spaces.
On Thursday, WEA President Larry Delaney said social distancing strategies might be difficult to implement at many schools. “We question if social distancing guidelines can truly be met in many schools across our state, given typical class sizes,” he said in a statement. Class sizes depend on grade level and school, and in Washington, they range from roughly 23 to 30 students. Another concern: persuading children, especially those in the youngest grades, to keep their faces covered.
Navas, a member of the workgroup, said she was disappointed by the end result and said the recommendations prioritized the logistics of reopening buildings — not the needs of students that schools are intended to serve. For instance, she said, the workgroup had the opportunity to rethink how schools could better educate students they tend to fail, such as those in special education. Instead, “It became very clear that the desire was to sort of have this conversation, get it over with, and just put out the guidelines.”
Families and students weren’t given the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the workgroup’s discussions, said Sarah Butcher, a workgroup member and director of a grassroots education organization called Roots of Inclusion.
“It is clear we need to look forward, as this work now will lay at the feet of local education agencies, and I don’t want to see repetition of leaving students and families out of the conversation,” she said.