Sunday, September 27, 2020
Sept. 27, 2020

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In Our View: School in fall still a bit of a multiple-choice test

The Columbian

With Washington schools closed through the end of this school year, attention has turned to what education will look like in the fall — and beyond.

For now, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal has identified seven options for possibly reopening schools in September: Traditional face-to-face instruction; split or rotating schedules to facilitate social distancing; split schedules combined with distance learning; a phased-in reopening with distance learning; remote learning, as is happening now; or continued learning to meet any new stay-at-home orders issued by the state.

Reykdal has formed a large committee of educators and policymakers to assess the possibilities, and a preliminary report is expected by June 8. “If we can’t come back in our traditional model, a bunch of this is going to happen at a distance again,” Reykdal said. “That’s what we’re trying to model with this larger work group. What does the fall and next year look like?”

Given the uncertainty of efforts to mitigate COVID-19 and the varying challenges faced by different communities, individual school districts must be empowered to adopt solutions that fit their needs. As Reykdal said: “Our goal isn’t to say to every district, ‘You all have to do it exactly the same way,’ with respect to the teaching side. It won’t be the same in Omak as it is in Seattle, and they’re just fundamentally going to be different in how they choose to deploy.”

Distance learning throughout the pandemic has highlighted the need for all students to have internet access — and the inequities in that access. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 14 percent of children ages 3 to 18 do not have internet at home, with students in low-income households or rural areas most likely to fall into that category.

Even if schools reopen as normal in the fall, there still will be the possibility of future shutdowns and a resumption of distance learning. As Reykdal said last month, “Short of a vaccine, which people continue to tell us is 12-18 months away, we have to figure out if it’s safe to come back even in the fall. Will we see a spike in cases if we are all sort of released from our social-distancing framework?”

Continued social distancing appears inevitable when in-building schooling resumes. The need to limit viral transmissions will continue. In order to facilitate separation, the state’s working group will consider alternating schedules with students attending in-person classes a couple days a week — creating questions about day care availability.

On top of all that are budget concerns with tax revenues diminished, and concerns about the health of teachers and staff in addition to students. Will teachers be required to wear protective masks? How do you maintain social distancing in a building with hundreds of young people?

Those are the immediate questions. In the long term, the pandemic could spur innovation that will benefit American education. As Harvard University professor Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts secretary of education, said: “We should be asking how do we make our school, education, and child-development systems more individually responsive to the needs of our students? Why not construct a system that meets children where they are and gives them what they need inside and outside of school in order to be successful? Let’s take this opportunity to end the one-size-fits-all factory model of education.”

That will take years to play out. In the meantime, students, parents and teachers just want to know how Washington schools will operate in the fall.