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State superintendent says even fall may be too soon to return to school

Maggie Byrne, a 6-year-old kindergartner at Roosevelt Elementary, takes her mother Ashely Byrne’s hand as school ends for the day on Monday, March 16, 2020. Officials closed schools for six weeks then, but now there’s no return date in sight. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

For stressed-out parents who wonder when all of this will end, the experts can offer only a few not-very-helpful charts.

Often accompanied by the phrase “flattening the curve,” they demonstrate the effectiveness of social distancing and stay-home orders in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, a flatter curve inevitably means a longer one – small comfort to families who wonder how long their kitchen table will double as a school desk.

And what of the other curve, the learning curve that will get ever steeper as children remain out of their classrooms? Given the prevailing timelines for a return to normalcy, the experts have only a vague idea.

“It really is out of our hands,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said Thursday. Like other districts, Spokane will follow statewide guidance, she said.

All appear to be gearing up for the long haul, as districts focus on making sure all students have equitable access to laptops, connectivity and worthwhile programs.

More doubt was sowed earlier this week, as Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all schools closed for the rest of the academic year.

With Inslee’s stay-home order set to expire on May 4, there’s a slight chance buildings could briefly reopen before the end of the academic year.

However, most school leaders don’t expect that to happen.

Referring to Inslee’s original school closure decision that went into effect on March 17, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal told earlier this week, “We would keep looking at the data and whether or not the trend of disease and risk was subsiding substantially enough to make the call to come back.

“And clearly that just isn’t the case,” Reykdal said. “I think we’re ahead of most states in flattening the curve, but the duration of this is just simply going to be longer.”

Some fear that learning from the living room will continue into the fall. Already, Reykdal is hedging on that point.

“Short of a vaccine, which people continue to tell us is 12-18 months away, we have to figure out if it’s safe to come back even in the fall,” Reykdal said. “Will we see a spike in cases if we are all sort of released from our social-distancing framework?”

Should the virus linger in the general population, schools would be the perfect incubator for another outbreak. If 30 students are back in a classroom and one has the coronavirus, it could be expected to spread.

“The science says we may not have the vaccine, we may not have the herd immunity (by fall), and no one wants us to spike up again if we suddenly release society from their homes to go to concerts and football games and school,” Reykdal said.

That would force more school deep-cleanings, closures and dislocation.

“So if that looks too dysfunctional, if not enough of us have gotten the virus and built the antibody, or we don’t have a vaccine, the return to schools are really tough considerations right now,” Reykdal said.

Another consideration is public opinion. Reykdal noted that even before schools were required to close, absentee rates skyrocketed among children and staff.

That nervousness was reflected in a late-March Seattle Times survey of readers, most of whom said they were parents. Only 21% said they felt safe returning their child to school if buildings were to reopen on April 27 — the date officials initially set to resume classroom learning.

More than 52% said they “strongly disagreed” with a return.

In the meantime, everyone must wait.

“We have time,” Reykdal said. “We have a lot of science working hard to figure it out, but I already have to start thinking about how to continue to strengthen our online model, which has gotten exponentially better over the last two weeks, but there’s a lot of work to go.”