State schools

‘The time has come.’ Gov. Jay Inslee orders schools in Washington state to reopen by April 19

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced Friday that he will soon issue an emergency proclamation directing school districts to provide part-time in-person instruction to K-6 students by April 5. and grades 7-12 by April 19.

“After a year of our schools being closed, now is the time for every child in Washington state to have access to an on-site education,” the governor said at a press conference.

The proclamation will require that by April 19, districts must offer K-12 students at least 30% of their instructional time in person, including at least two partial days on campus. Distance learning would be offered the rest of the time, as well as full-time for students whose families prefer to stay at home.

While distance learning has worked well for some students, many others are suffering, he said.

“I have reviewed the medical evidence regarding the condition of our students, both from a Covid transmission perspective and from a mental health perspective,” Inslee said. “In recent days, there is now, unfortunately, undeniably, a mental health care crisis in our state regarding our youth.

The announcement comes a year to the day after public schools in Seattle – the state’s largest district – closed due to the coronavirus. Shortly thereafter, the governor closed the rest of the state’s public and private schools.

Inslee is the latest governor to require public schools to reopen at least part-time — in recent days, governors in Oregon and Arizona signed executive orders requiring districts to invite students back.

Although Inslee has long maintained that it does not have the authority to order schools to reopen and that each district school board should make its own reopening decision, spokeswoman Tara Lee said the closure of school for a year for many students had created “a new crisis”. that the governor can address through this emergency proclamation.

In Seattle, where only about 150 students are currently being served in person, “They’re going to have to pick up the pace, there’s no doubt about it,” Inslee said.

Statewide, 85% of districts have reopened at least part-time to some students, although in some districts only young children and special education students are learning in person.

Many are offering a hybrid model of distance and in-person learning, with only half of each year in buildings at a time, often two days a week, to keep class sizes small and students at six-person desks. feet apart. . This hybrid model is what the governor said is the minimum for districts that are beginning to reopen. “We know it can work,” Inslee said, because it’s in place across the state, in districts large and small, urban and rural.

The state’s largest teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association, challenged the wisdom of the governor’s action. “The governor’s announcement assumes that districts have the capacity to provide safe teaching and learning,” WEA said in a written statement.

“Some districts are not yet ready to welcome students safely back into buildings. Local unions are actively negotiating with districts to ensure that returning to buildings is as safe as possible. Shortening these safety processes will not is not in the best interests of our students, staff, or communities,” the union said.

Numerous studies have shown that in-person school can operate relatively safely during the pandemic if the proper precautions are in place – such as social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, and keeping students in isolated cohorts.

Still, many school staff and parents have expressed doubts about their own district’s actual protocols and preparedness, including the type of masks available to staff and issues with air circulation in the classroom.

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That dispute has delayed the reopening of public schools in Seattle, where the district and the Seattle Education Association have been locked in negotiations over how and when to restart in-person classes since January.

After several district promises to begin reopening were delayed earlier this week, the district and union said the first in-person classes would begin March 29 for preschool and some students who receive intensive education services. special.

Seattle Public Schools spokesman Tim Robinson declined a request for an interview, but released a written statement saying the district is actively negotiating with the union ‘to bring our students back, starting with the most vulnerable. , for in-person instruction: students receiving education services and preschool students.

The district did not discuss what the governor’s proclamation would mean for Seattle students. “We will need time to analyze the details of the proclamation and determine the impacts for our students, families and staff,” the district said.

Districts wondering how to keep the school running in person during the pandemic can look to the many districts across the state where it’s already in practice, the governor said today. “There are over 1,400 schools doing this safely today with minimal school transmission,” he said.

The announcement didn’t surprise Seattle School Board President Chandra Hampson, “but I was frustrated,” she said. Hampson called planning for the district’s reopening a “painfully slow process,” but said the district finally turned the corner this week in its negotiations with the union and is very close to reaching a tentative agreement “that centers and prioritizes our most needy students to come to our buildings first,” Hampson said.

In addition to students with disabilities and preschoolers, Hampson said, the board wanted the district to focus on English language learners, foster children, homeless students, low-income schools and middle and high school students who struggle academically or are entirely disengaged.

“I strongly believe, philosophically, morally, ethically and legally, that this is the right approach to come back in person,” Hampson said, “and for that to be upset, and now I have to consider planning something completely different, which is actually, most likely, reducing the ability of our staff to focus on the students who have had the highest needs throughout this pandemic. That makes me really sad.

Hampson said the governor’s mandate calls into question whether the district will be able to begin reopening to preschool and some special education students on March 29, as planned this week with the union.

“Now we’re forced to negotiate all of the teaching models, at every grade level, all at the same time, and for all of these different populations. That’s a huge lift,” Hampson said.

Reactions from parents have been mixed, said Manuela Slye, president of the Seattle Council PTSA. “Some people are just ready — more than ready — to go back to school,” Slye said.

Other families wanted to make sure there will always be a remote option because they don’t feel safe in buildings due to the pandemic, she said.

Slye echoed the governor’s emphasis on mental health supports in schools and said she hopes the pandemic ushers in a new era of holistic care for children’s needs. “We need advisers, and that’s not something new. It’s something we’ve been advocating for a long time. So hopefully with this idea of ​​going back to schools, we’ll also start having counselors again. counselors in each school,” says Slye.

Janis White, president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA, welcomed the shift to a hybrid model for all students, expanding beyond the initial priority for students with disabilities.

Since districts are legally required to serve students with disabilities alongside their general education peers, White said she was uncomfortable with the district’s lack of a cohesive plan to invite all students to return for in-person learning so that students are not always separated by ability.

“For families whose children have struggled and made little or no progress during remote learning, and who are comfortable with the risks of sending their children back to school buildings, I think that’s good news because hopefully it’s going to force our district into compliance,” White said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said the costs associated with in-person learning will be mitigated by the latest round of federal CARES Act funding. But he said Seattle’s share, about $37 million in the last round, is being held back until the district comes up with a proper reopening plan.

“Seattle is one of the districts that doesn’t have a green light yet,” Reykdal said. “We want to continue working with them.”

The governor and chief of schools emphasized that children’s mental health must be a top priority for schools and the state as a whole.

The governor’s emergency proclamation will also direct the state Department of Health and the State Health Care Authority “to immediately begin work on recommendations that would detail how to meet the behavioral health needs of our children,” Inslee said.

The governor said his budget proposal includes significant investments in mental health care for young people, and that the $2.6 billion in federal pandemic assistance he estimates schools across the The state will also receive total expected to pay substantial increases in the number of school counselors, nurses and other mental health services that are currently poorly funded by the state.

But first, it’s time for students to get back to the classroom, the governor said – to their teachers, friends and school buildings.

“The lasting effect of this mental health crisis will be felt for some time. A return to school is not a catch-all to these challenges. But this return is unequivocally part of the solution for so many young Washingtonians,” Inslee said.

Correction 03/13/21 3:55 PM – An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who first ordered Seattle Public Schools closed in 2020.