Concern for students, staff ahead of schools reopening: What are the safest options?

Schools in eastern Washington evaluate plans, release some options for students

Teachers, students and parents are asking one question: What will school look like this fall? Washington state education officials still don’t know due to the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal announced in June that school districts will need options for the 2020-2021 school year. Students could see an alternating schedule with some students in class learning from a teacher, others at home completing assignments and then on a rotating schedule the students will switch environments. This may seem like a safe solution but it comes with many challenges. Districts will attempt to keep families on the same schedule even though the children could be at different schools. Then there is the question of busing and how to keep students socially distanced, surfaces sanitized properly and what alternative plans are if staff have to be isolated if exposed to the virus.

Then there are the less obvious but also critical discussions of safety in older infrastructure while health experts continue to learn about COVID-19. The Washington Education Association President, Larry Delaney, said ventilation in schools is a concern for staff and students.

“As more evidence suggests that this is airborne and aerosol related, that’s a serious concern,” Delaney said, “There are a myriad of questions that come up when you just look at what a school day entails. Do school districts have the necessary PPE available to protect both students and staff? Do they have the ability to clean all the surfaces that need to be cleaned over the course of the school day? What about meals? What about transportation? There’s just a myriad of issues.”

Social media groups are also heavily discussing safety issues like the exposure a teacher has to students if they are on an alternating schedule. If one teacher is educating two groups of children in the same space, the virus could be passed through objects that are not sanitizes properly or through the teacher from one group to the other.

Delaney questions the resources schools and teachers will have as many are facing tight budgets and less staff.

“As we look at the future, school districts are faced with the economic challenge of reopening,” he said, “I have not seen a reopening model that could be adequately carried out with fewer staff. The reality is to do what needs to be done in our brick and mortar schools requires more staff, it requires more custodial, or it requires more educators, more para-educators. This is something certainly the school districts are going to have look at as they address the school year going forward. Do they have the resources to run some sort of in-person hybrid model? I think that this is an unprecedented situation. None of us have gone through this before and you know, everyone wants answers and everyone wants clarity right now. Unfortunately, there’s just not the answers or the clarity. This is such a fluid situation.”

Districts still have time to address those issues before school begins in September. Districts in the Tri-City area and throughout eastern Washington are looking at alternating schedules and continuing distance learning. The Walla Walla School District is offering a fully online learning option called Walla Walla Online. Former teacher and assistant principal Carina Stillman has joined the district’s newest learning option and will serve as the online school’s principal. She was the assistant principal at Garrison Middle School in Walla Walla when the pandemic hit.

“It was wild,” Stillman said, “If somebody had told me on March 1st that we would be doing online learning by March 20th, I would have laughed at them.”

The middle school transitioned to using a Google classroom platform for the remainder of the school year. Stillman said many teachers and students weren’t accustomed to the model but learned quickly and had an overall successful experience. The district quickly outlined what school would look like from March to June and Stillman assisted teachers in creating instructional videos explaining components of Google classroom.

“It was pretty rewarding,” Stillman said, “A lot of learning as well. We noticed the students who weren’t engaged and we developed more engaged things for them. Zoom meetings, dress up days and things like that to re-engage and get students connecting with us.”

Delaney said some Washington schools weren’t as quick to become accustomed to distance learning.

“There was some criticism against online learning or distance learning last spring,” he said, “The state was asked to flip a switch in a matter of days, switch from in-person to online. What we want to see from school districts is some sort of training around distance learning and how educators can do a better job of serving students and the families that they work with.”

Delaney said many schools will most likely continue the fully online learning model this fall and any school that isn’t considering the model is doing a disservice to their students, staff and community.

Meanwhile outside of district discussions and meetings, parents and the general public want answers. Facebook groups and Twitter threads involve parents asking valuable questions surrounding adequate resources to schools and stipulations on masks, PPE and unpredictable factors. In a Tri-Cities based Facebook group, one person writes “Schools can’t even control lice, you really trust them to control Covid?” Another person in the group says they are a teacher and they’re frustrated with the lack of discussion on the impact to adults in schools. Another person comments that the Tri-Cities just isn’t ready to reopen schools.

Delaney said families are facing a multitude of pressures and are essentially being asked to prepare for anything. He said the main goal for any Washington parent though is to ensure their child is safe in their school environment.

“The best thing that parents can do to ensure that we can open schools in something that resembles a normal format, is to ensure that we’re following the public health guidance right now, that people are wearing masks,” Delaney said.

For parents in Walla Walla, those certainties are appearing quicker than other areas of the state. Walla Walla Online is still in development but many questions are already answered. Families enrolled in the district can take a survey to state whether or not they are interested in the online option. Of the surveys taken so far, around 10% of students are interested in the online only school. The option is essentially free homeschooling but students are being taught by certified educators that have multiple resources and experience to offer. Teachers and paraprofessionals will also have the opportunity to transition to the online option.

“We are using local teachers to support local kids,” Stillman said. “I think it’s a great option, not only for health impaired students, but students who just need a different environment. And teachers who have that passionate interest in it as well.”

All core and advanced placement classes will be offered in the online model. The district can evaluate a student’s educational record and offer suggestions as to what classes a student should take. Plus, students could move quicker or slower than they would in a traditional classroom to fit how they learn. The online option doesn’t have to be permanent for students though. If a student decides to rejoin the traditional learning environment or a different learning program, they can make that move. Additionally, the district is still entertaining ideas and ways to engage students on multiple levels, including some in-person opportunities.

“I think that’s a really exciting opportunity to still have a certified teacher working with students. We’re going to be located over on Isaac Street where we plan to have social distancing requirements that allow in-person options for students to come to meet with teachers face-to-face during a designated time each week,” Stillman said, “So it’s the best of online learning and in-person support as needed as well.”

Students who aren’t health restricted can also continue extra curricular activities and elective classes. Some classes will be available online but students will have the option to participate in clubs, sports and other things outside of the online schooling option.

The Walla Walla School District has not announced district-wide plans as they still discuss safety options. Districts in the Tri-Cities are also evaluating what will best work for their students and faculty. Plans will need to be submitted to the state a few weeks ahead of the start of the school year. Until then, the entire Washington state public education community will be waiting.

“There’s so many questions that just don’t have answers,” Delaney said, “I’ve been compiling a list of questions that members and  local leaders have been sending to me. And it’s well past 100 questions and I think that reopening schools is such a complex situation that the general public may not be aware of all of the related issues that are out there. If we come together, when we rely on the science, we have a much better possibility of resuming school and something that looks normal. You know, right now the trend in this state is that we’re not doing that.

Enrollment begins in late July for many eastern Washington school districts. Many schools have released preliminary plans and options for the public to look at and comment on including the Pasco School District, Richland School District, Kennewick School District, Finley School District and Walla Walla School District.