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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Washington’s new education bills highlight digital infrastructure, student health

3 measures go into effect June 9

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 10, 2022, 6:04am

With the 60-day whirlwind of 2022’s legislative session completed, it’s time to consider what’s to come for education in Washington.

Mental health, digital equity and funding for underserved populations were among the priorities identified by the League of Education Voters, a nonpartisan education advocacy group.

A handful of locally sponsored bills that recently passed address how the Legislature can best help schools improve social-emotional support systems for students and aid underserved populations in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. The following three bills go into effect June 9:

Nurses, counselors

Thanks to House Bill 1664, over three years (2022-23, 2023-24, 2024-25), the number of state-funded positions for nurses, social workers, psychologists and counselors who work with students is set to slowly increase.

Using the state’s formula, by 2024-25, a high school of 600 students would see funding for 0.824 nurses, 0.127 social workers, 0.049 psychologists and 3.039 counselors.

To put that into context for Skyview High School, where the student body is an estimated 1,900, the new state-funding model would provide the salaries of 2.61 nurses, 0.402 social workers, 0.155 psychologists and 9.624 counselors.

Based on the new model, high schools would typically see the largest concentration of mental health staffers funded by the state. Elementary schools would receive, in comparison, more funding for social workers and psychologists and less for nurses and counselors; and middle schools would see more funding for nurses and less for each of the other three positions.

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction must submit reports to the Legislature every other year on the implementation of these new funding ratios starting in 2023.

Though deemed critical by counselors, teachers and administrators, it’s likely that local levies will still heavily contribute toward creating and sustaining these positions in areas, such as Vancouver, where school districts exceed the average sizes set for the state.

More information on the bill is available at app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=1664&Year=2021&Initiative=false.

Broadband access

Known as the Digital Equity Act, HB 1723 addresses concerns for better access to broadband services necessary for remote work and education that were exacerbated amid the pandemic. The bill features sweeping language that directly acknowledges the critical nature of digital infrastructure for Washingtonians.

“Across the state there is a lack of affordable plans, barriers to enrolling in appropriate broadband plans and barriers to fully utilize the opportunities that broadband offers,” the bill as passed reads. “The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the need for affordable access, devices and skills to use the internet.”

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In recent months, local school districts have referenced the importance of temporary programs such as the Emergency Connectivity Fund, in which federal money was directly distributed to districts to fund broadband hotspots and provide personal devices for students during the pandemic’s period of fully remote education.

The statewide broadband office will develop a Digital Equity Plan that aims to identify the best ways in which to expand the state’s existing digital infrastructure, specifically targeting areas with existing disparities. It will also establish competitive grant programs to provide publicly available training in the use of specific hardware and software, cybersecurity, digital media literacy, technical support and more.

A digital equity forum will also be assembled among members of federally recognized tribes, underserved and unserved communities, members of state agencies and each chamber of the state Legislature. A state fund will collect private contributions and federal funding explicitly for the use of the broadband program and grant program.

The statewide broadband office’s full plan describing how the infrastructure will be established and how it was created with help from the digital equity forum must be submitted to the governor for approval by Dec. 1, 2023.

More information on the bill is available at app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=1723&Year=2021.

Mental health absences

In recent years — particularly since the onset of the pandemic — absence due to mental health reasons has become more common among students. HB 1834 takes a step to mandate that school districts excuse absences for these reasons, just as they would for a physical illness.

“The Legislature finds that school districts are consistently not recognizing student absences for mental health reasons as excused absences,” the bill as passed reads. “Therefore, the Legislature intends to require that student absences for mental health reasons be categorized as excused absences.”

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction will be required to consult with an advisory committee comprised of students who reflect the diversity of the public school population to hear how these absences can best be defined and what the reasoning for them might be.

By the start of the 2022-23 school year, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction must create a definition for student absence for public schools to implement that reflects the findings of the meetings with the advisory council.

More information on the bill is available at app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=1834&Year=2021&Initiative=false.