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Washington schools ordered closed until fall

By Jim Camden and Jim Allen The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Public and private schools in Washington are closed until fall, and students will be getting instruction through “distance learning,” state officials announced Monday.

“We simply cannot take the chance of opening on-site instruction this calendar school year,” Gov. Jay Inslee said.

Keeping schools closed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus will be as important when the number of cases is going down as it is when they are going up, he emphasized. “We cannot risk losing the gains we have made after the peak of this pandemic, presumably, will have passed.”

The number of fatalities in Washington is still going up, Inslee added. “We have not reached the peak of this pandemic.”

On March 17, schools were closed until April 27, but with the state’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order extended through May 4 last week, some extension of the school closure seemed inevitable.

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said she was hoping the closure decisions would be made in two-week increments, but that she understood the desire “to know what the plan is.”

Mead School District Superintendent Shawn Woodard called the decision disappointing but not surprising, adding that the district has been making plans in case students couldn’t return to schools.

“We’re on a really good path right now, our capability to deliver distance learning at a high level improves each week.”

The closure affects about 1.2 million students in the state. Inslee and Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said classes were expected but not guaranteed to resume in the fall. Washington becomes the 14th state to close school for the year.

Schools will continue to look for ways to provide meaningful lessons to students at home, provide meals for students who need them and provide some additional child care slots for students, particularly those with parents in essential occupations who must leave home to work.

Some schools will provide on-site learning for certain students, including some with disabilities, those who are considered vulnerable or students taking English as second language courses.

Inslee held open the possibility that students could return to the schools for special events late in the year, including high school seniors for graduation ceremonies, although that decision will be made later.

Redinger said she’s holding out hope that will happen.

“Hopefully, we can come back before the end of the school year,” Redinger said. “In listening to the governor, I know that he has a desire to do that for graduation and that human connection with staff and students.”

Seniors in good standing will get their diplomas, and students’ grade point averages won’t be hurt by distance learning. The company that administers Advanced Placement tests is working on a system to administer them to students at home.

School districts are continuing to improve their “distance learning” models, Reykdal said, and are trying to determine the access their students have to high-speed internet.

“We’re going to be as assertive as possible to create as much equity as is humanly possible, today and in the future,” Inslee said. Districts are being urged to be as creative as possible.

“Now, that is a challenge because there is not uniformity in connectivity in the state of Washington,” he added. “We’ve decided to have the most kids possible to have an education.”

West Valley School District Superintendent Gene Sementi said he was hoping there would be a few weeks at the end of the year to reconnect with teachers.

“I appreciate that they were doing what they think is the safest thing thing to do, and I’m certain that they are getting a lot of expert advice,” Sementi said.