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June 21, 2021

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How school districts responded to Inslee’s school reopening order

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Nearly all school districts in Washington state have complied with Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to reopen schools, and to dedicate at least a third of their school hours to in-person instruction each week.

But across the state, some students are getting much more in-person time than others. While some school districts aimed directly at meeting Inslee’s quota, others far exceeded it, according to a Seattle Times analysis of a state education department survey, which asked school districts how many hours they would provide in-person as a result of the order.

In the Lake Washington School District, a student in high school goes to school four times a week, spending more than five hours there at a time. The district offers among the most in-person school time in the Seattle area, making up about 67% of its weekly school hours on average.

But in Seattle Public Schools, high school students generally go to school twice a week, for just under three hours at a time. (Their last week of classes in June has a few more hours built in.) Both of these schedules meet Inslee’s order, but one schedule offers roughly double the hours.

In Eastern Washington, school districts like Spokane are back to offering 100% in-person instruction for elementary school students, while in the Evergreen School District in Southwest Washington, about 40% of elementary school hours are offered in-person.

The variety in schedules and responses to the Inslee order has puzzled families tracking what other districts are doing. In Seattle, short schooling hours and a lack of transportation access has kept many students remote. Some parents have had to keep their kids at home because their work schedules didn’t align with those set by the district, which has some students starting in the middle of the day and staying for a couple of hours.

David Knight, an assistant education professor at the University of Washington, said the imbalance is concerning. With the data available, he said he wasn’t prepared make any conclusions about how or whether this will affect students in the long run. But “if there’s one thing the pandemic has laid bare, it is the huge disparities in educational offerings,” said Knight.

Some key questions are left unanswered by this data, including how many families opted for in-person learning when it was offered.

“We should have that data by race and class,” said Meredith Honig, a UW professor of educational leadership and policy. But the state education department hasn’t required school districts to report it.

More important than the number of hours offered is the quality of the time spent the classroom, Honig added. Right now, that’s hard to measure.

Limited data exist on how students fare under a hybrid of online and in-person learning. Some research, such as an April study from the Netherlands, suggests that student progress slows during school closures. But there hasn’t been a robust study of remote learning or hybrid schooling in the U.S. during the pandemic.

In many cases, school district officials said their hours and schedules were a reflection of how far along they were in the process before the final reopening deadline took effect on April 19, and how many kids their buildings could accommodate. Many school districts in Western Washington rushed to expand their in-person plans after Inslee issued his order in mid-March, overhauling their negotiations with employee unions, buying supplies and figuring out how many families were willing to send their kids back.

“Determining the schedule was complex,” wrote Shoreline School District spokesperson Curtis Campbell in an email. “The spreadsheet determining the three types of class assignments (hybrid in person, hybrid remote, and fully remote) is massive and took weeks to finalize.”

Differences in schedules also depended on what leaders prioritized. In Lake Washington, “Our Board took a strong stand on the importance of instructional time. Students and families in our community also advocated firmly and clearly about the value of in-person instruction,” said Shannon Parthemer, a district spokesperson.

In Seattle, district and union leaders wanted to create a schedule that kept remote learners with their same teachers, said spokesperson Tim Robinson.

“Ensuring equitable access to instruction and instructional support for both in-person and remote students while complying with building capacity and health and safety guidelines created a puzzle to solve for the final 9 weeks,” Robinson wrote in an email. “Transportation and food services were both very challenging given the constraints.”

Inslee’s requirement that schools offer 30% of their weekly average instructional time in-person was a way to accommodate schools that needed to divide their students into three groups to satisfy distancing guidelines, said Maddy Thompson, education adviser to Inslee. Officials expected to see a diversity in schedules and numbers of hours offered.

“I actually think it’s pretty amazing,” said Thompson. “It’s been remarkable what this proclamation has done. There’s been a lot of movement. And I think school districts were already headed in that direction.”

A few school districts reported they were able to teach students in-person for less than 30% of the school week, but Inslee’s office doesn’t intend to enforce the order.

“It ends up being self-enforced because there are lot of keen parents to get in-person learning,” Thompson said.

Before the pandemic, some school districts were already offering more hours than others: Under state law, each school district is required to offer a districtwide average of about 1,027 hours per school year. When creating their calendars for the year — a process that’s typically done at the bargaining table with teachers unions — some school districts surpass that, said Parker Teed, a basic education manager at the Washington State Board of Education.

That means under the reopening order, some school districts may have needed fewer or more hours in order to meet the 30% threshold. In general, school districts tended to offer more in-person hours for elementary school students than middle and high school students, according to state data.

With many school districts, including Seattle, already announcing their intent to have full-time in-person instruction this fall, the hours may even out between school districts. But with remote learning sticking around, state officials expect there will still be lots of variety in what school looks like.

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