When Yakima’s La Salle High School switched to online learning eight years ago, school leadership saw it as a transition to the future of education.
While students still attended class in person, they completed coursework through iPads and interactive classroom platforms. School work went digital with the help of a benefactor who paid for each student’s electronic device.
In February 2019, a pileup of snow in the Valley led to snow days across school districts and left many bracing for a late release for summer.
But classes at La Salle, a private Catholic college prep high school for students in grades 9-12, continued without interruption. The school simply made learning remote — a relatively painless process, since students already had devices and were accustomed to the learning platforms.
“We didn’t miss one day as a snow day,” said La Salle President Tim McGree. “We graduated on time and our students didn’t have to go beyond the scheduled end of school.”
The school was unknowingly preparing for an unprecedented scenario down the road.
In late January, Washington became the first state with a confirmed case of COVID-19. In early March, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic.
Schools west of the Cascades closed to prevent the continued spread. Across town from La Salle, St. Joseph Marquette Catholic School announced it would close for two weeks after learning of a confirmed case in the community. That person was among three confirmed cases in the county at that point.
La Salle called an assembly of its 225 students that same morning to announce it would transition to remote learning, as it had the year before, to protect its students and staff, McGree said.
“We used that foundation,” he said. “We told them we were moving to digital learning and for them to be on their iPads and (that) if they lived up to their end of the bargain, we would live up to our end and have our students graduate on June 1, and have our students finish on June 1.”
Hours later, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a mandated statewide school closure for all public and private schools in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Districts were told that any missed days due to the virus would be made up through June 19, extending the school year. They have since worked to provide learning opportunities for their more than 1.1 million K-12 students while campuses are closed.
For some, that has meant passing out paper learning packets or distributing devices and hot spots to students.
At La Salle, it meant making sure that all students had the ability to continue school work from home.
“Thirty percent of our students are from (families living) below poverty level,” McGree said. “So there was a concern that some families didn’t have Wi-Fi at home. We corrected that pretty quickly.”
McGree said despite past remote learning experience, the transition was “a little bit lumpy.” But things ironed out quickly.
“(Students) go to school every day. They’re in class on Zoom and using the latest technology to finish their classes,” he said, mentioning a platform for video conferencing. “We’re not seeing a lot (of school matters) slipping through the cracks.”
The biggest difference from last year to this has been the length of the remote learning, he said. Rather than planning for a few days to avoid snow days, teachers and school administration were planning for weeks.
Inslee’s stay at home order was originally expected to be six-weeks, ending April 24. On Thursday evening, he extended that when he announced a stay-at-home order would remain in effect through May 4.
Researchers anticipate a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Washington state in mid-April. As of Thursday, the state Department of Health had confirmed 6,585 cases of COVID-19 in the state and 262 deaths. The governor said social distancing efforts and the stay-at-home order are showing promise in helping reduce the spread of the virus.
In the meantime, La Salle students are on track to finish school as planned, aside from determining how graduation will work.
“The virus dictates all timelines and events right now. We understand that. So we’re just watching careful like everybody else and we’ll see about graduation,” said McGree.
In the meantime, he said he was proud of both the school’s staff and students for pressing through this unusual time.
“We’re proud,” he said. “Our kids are holding up their end of the bargain.”