Public and private schools in Washington state are barred from in-person instruction for the rest of the academic year, Gov. Jay Inslee said in an announcement on Monday.
School is scheduled to reopen on time this fall.
“We simply cannot take the chance of re-opening on-site instruction in this school year,” Inslee said in a news conference Monday afternoon. “This school closure is part and parcel of [the] efforts not only to flatten the curve as it goes up, but to reduce the number of deaths that occur as it goes down,” he said.
The governor informed superintendents around the state of the decision in a conference call this morning.
In his announcement to the media, Inslee did leave the door open for in-person instruction for students who face the most challenges, including those learning English, and students with disabilities.
“We are addressing this by allowing limited school activity for those students in school buildings that really follow social distancing guidelines similar to the Department of Health guidelines for child care,” Inslee said, and asked “school and community leaders to help us in ensuring access for these students.”
“These are difficult times, and this is a tough day for us in Washington state,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, who appeared alongside the governor. “While learning is paramount duty to the state, the health of our people is first and foremost,” Reykdal said.
In Washington, the governor had closed all K-12 schools beginning March 17 until April 27.
But Reykdal had predicted in a video to families released Friday that school was unlikely to return to session in-person until the fall.
In the video, Reykdal tried to reassure families that students would recover from this break in their usual education. Even if schools stayed closed for the remainder of the school year, Reykdal said, doing math on a white board, students would only lose 2.4 percent of their K-12 education, maximum.
“I don’t intend for it even to be a percent,” Reykdal said.
Along with the distance learning he directed districts to begin last week, he said, his department intends to work with the state legislature and Governor Inslee to “figure out how to add additional hours next year, and perhaps the year after that, to try to make sure that instruction happens for everybody.”
Governor Inslee told high school seniors that if they were on track to graduate, they have nothing to fear. “If you’re a senior in good standing, we expect that you will receive your diploma this year,” he said.
He did not discuss what would happen for the many seniors in more precarious positions, who often rely on considerable assistance from teachers and school counselors to fulfill their final credits or re-take classes in order to receive their diplomas.
The governor entertained the notion that graduation ceremonies may be possible at the end of the school year. “We’re going to explore that option as the evidence continues to come in,” Inslee said. “That opportunity will be guided by our collective behavior and the success we achieve with the choices that we’re making today.”
“We had been hoping to reopen our schools, but there is a new way of doing school now, at least for the rest of this year,” said Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson. “That’s with our families as co-educators and partners.”
Robinson said district leaders were surprised to hear Inslee mention an exception to the ban on in-person instruction for the most vulnerable students, including those with disabilities and English language learners. “Discussions are already underway, as we first seek to gain clarity on what he means, and frame up a way to meet the expectation,” Robinson said.
Robinson urged Seattle families to go to the district website for resources like educational videos, child care availability for essential workers, and free meal distribution sites. “We expect to actually expand [our meal distribution program] a bit,” Robinson said.
Starr McKittrick, who teaches humanities and AP language and composition at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, said finally knowing for certain that school was closed for good this year will help her develop lesson plans that make the most of distance learning. “We can provide kids [the chance] to maybe choose their own adventure, with some guidance, of course,” McKittrick said - like longer-term projects.
“Hopefully it frees up a little bit of mental space so that we can actually design some sort of digital gallery where they could share their work, or figure out something cool and fancy for kids to engage in and come together,” while remaining physically apart, McKittrick said.
But McKittrick worries about the one-third of her students who have not yet taken part in her class from a distance - many of them students who had attendance problems when school was still open. “Now I think that this situation makes it even easier for them to kind of slip into the cracks and disappear,” McKittrick said.
Reykdal said he is personally calling on private companies to ensure that all students have the Internet connections they need for online learning. “We have to get connectivity to all of our students,” Reykdal said. “This is our moment to connect every family and see it as much as a right to be connected as clean water.”
For parents now trying to oversee their children’s education - often while working from home - the news of the extended closure can feel overwhelming.
Michelle Birdsall Ireton said that trying to interpret her seventh-grader’s assignments, troubleshoot technological problems, and keep him motivated “has become another job for me - and I’m still trying to work.”
While the extended closure did not come as a big surprise to her, Birdsall Ireton said, she had been trying to stay focused on one week at a time. Asked whether the prospect now felt daunting, she paused. “Now that you point that out, now I need a Kleenex,” she said.
Birdsall Ireton said her son is struggling in one class in particular. “I heard talk that now [grading] is going to be pass/fail. Well, that doesn’t solve the situation,” she said. “How is that going to affect next year? There’s all sorts of things that I’m just trying not to think about,” Birdsall Ireton said.
The extended closure will also put additional strain on the many families who find it increasingly hard to put children in child care. Many facilities are temporarily closed or limited only to the children of first responders or other essential workers.
As of Monday afternoon, at least 1,163 child care centers have closed around the state, which had the capacity to serve 54,662 children, said Marcia Jacobs, a spokesperson for Child Care Aware of Washington. Many more centers are having trouble making ends meet and face possible closure. “We also know about 16,635 vacancies in existing child care programs,” Jacobs said by email.
While a return to K-12 schools is scheduled for September, Superintendent Reykdal said it’s still unknown what it will take to prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus. “It does call into question this fall,” Reykdal said.
That may happen in “a traditional face to face model, should we get the right science and art in our favor,” Reykdal said. “But also, we know we have to be significantly better at this distance model in case we find ourselves in that reality.”