After the statewide K-12 school shutdown in March and the weeks of mixed-results online learning that followed, school districts up and down the Yakima Valley are now faced with complicated decisions regarding how to safely and effectively educate thousands of students this fall and beyond.
Options include 100% remote learning, similar to what took place in the closing weeks of the 2019-20 school year as communities attempted to slow the spread of the highly contagious and unpredictable COVID-19; in-person classroom instruction in reopened school buildings, with social distancing and heightened sanitation; or hybrids of the two.
Strong opinions abound on this subject as school officials, teachers, support staffers and parents grapple with balancing the differing needs of students and families against the health and safety of all concerned parties. Some families that are more financially secure, for instance, might prefer online learning, whereas struggling families with working parents might be eager to send their children off to school each day.
Meanwhile, administrators and state officials wonder how to pay for it all, as extra hirings, more extensive cleaning techniques and the potential added costs related to remote learning promise to stretch district budgets.
In short, it’s a bit of a mess.
But it’s a mess whose ownership sits at the local level. It is up to individual districts — administrators, teachers, support staff, parents and other stakeholders — working in conjunction with local health districts and related state agencies and officials, to make these tough calls for their students and communities. Nobody knows a school system better than those who work within that system or who live in the community. What’s right for Yakima kids and families might not work for Selah or Grandview or Sunnyside. And while few would argue that in-person, classroom instruction is the best way to educate most children, reality says it’s prudent to have Plans B and C ready to go, at least until the U.S. can flatten the COVID-19 curve.
If we hadn’t learned yet that public education isn’t one-size-fits-all, hopefully the pandemic will bring this lesson home. Yakima Superintendent Trevor Greene suggested Tuesday that there could be permanent changes within his district even after schools fully reopen. “This has really shined a light on the need for us to be more flexible in meeting families where they are, whether that’s virtually or in the in-school setting,” he said.
In reinforcing the need for local control and decision-making, in a polite way we’re telling the White House to butt out. And we’re not alone. In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has been advocating for schools to reopen in the fall, hoping that a return of parents to the workforce will help stimulate the American economy. In doing so, he’s issued largely empty threats to withhold federal funding — a small fraction of a local school district budget. More recently, however, the White House has indicated that it is considering an increase of financial support for public schools this fall.
And school districts large and small across the country continue to ignore the president’s position and his threats, focusing instead on the educational and health needs of their own communities — exactly what must be done here in the Valley, with its widely diverse population and just-as-wide income gaps that historically can hinder learning for some.
The Yakima School District, for instance, has already announced that it will offer full-time online schooling to all students whose parents don’t feel it’s safe to return their children to classrooms. The district said Tuesday that it will send a survey to parents and guardians in the next couple of weeks to see if families would prefer remote learning, in-person instruction or a combination. Results of the survey will help determine details such as how to divide teachers and support staff between classroom and online instruction. The first day of school for Yakima students is Aug. 26.
Rob Darling, Yakima School District assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said that the physical reopening of school buildings this fall is not a sure thing. The district is meeting with the Yakima Health District weekly to discuss plans for reopening, he noted. They are hopeful to have answers by early August.
Other issues under discussion include how to safely serve lunch, working with students with disabilities, the possibility of switching from semesters to quarters for older students, and expanding internet boundaries so all students and teachers can connect from home.
With widely diverse economic bases from district to district throughout Yakima County, reliable internet connections will be an issue this year and perhaps for years to come. It’s in important issue — one that local districts might not be in the best position to resolve due to cost and lack of infrastructure. If they haven’t already done so, now would be the time for school districts with uneven internet coverage to reach out to the state and perhaps private industry for assistance as they mine for ways to best serve their students and unique communities.