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Spokane Valley superintendents acknowledge challenges, successes in virtual town hall

UPDATED: Thu., April 30, 2020

Superintendents from the four Spokane Valley school districts Thursday urged families to reach out for questions, comments and even criticism in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a 90-minute virtual town hall hosted by the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, the superintendents emphasized that two-way communication will ease what has been a bumpy ride for all districts.

“There’s always an invitation if you have any questions to reach out to me,” said East Valley Superintendent Kelly Shea, who was joined by Ben Small of Central Valley, Gene Sementi of West Valley and Randy Russell of Freeman.

“Managing expectations has been the biggest challenge,” said Shea, who writes a weekly online letter to families.

Expectations continue to be high despite the dislocation forced by the coronavirus and the resulting statewide closure of schools.

Thursday’s event drew about 800 attendees, many of whom were eager to communicate their disappointment as well as their delight at how the four districts have handled the educational, social and emotional well-being of a combined 23,000 students.

Most offered praise for the hard work and dedication of individual teachers. One viewer was frustrated with a one-size-fits-all approach to online education, arguing it is “holding back 90% of students for the sake of 10%.”

Another worried that students aren’t getting a strong message “that they need to participate with online updates – instead that their grades won’t be impacted if they don’t participate.”

Others wondered about graduation plans, consistency in distance learning for all grades, plans for the summer and fall, and other topics.

Most of those questions were forwarded to the individual districts, with answers expected next week. In the meantime, the superintendents spoke with one voice about the challenges forced upon them by COVID-19.

Going back to the first stages of the outbreak, Small said that Central Valley “early on had amped up cleaning and we stepped up protocols.”

“We wanted to do our part to stop the spread of the virus and maintain safety” in the district of 12,600 students, Small said.

“We wanted to make sure students were cared for, make sure they had access to learning to prepare them for next year and build in the community faith and trust in us.”

At West Valley, Sementi said the district worked hard to check out laptops and serve about 27,000 meals since schools closed March 17.

“We’re very proud of that,” Sementi said.

Sementi acknowledged that distance learning “is not the same thing as coming to school.”

All four acknowledged that distance learning holds a steep learning curve for all involved.

“The learning model is bumpy,” said Small, who said the district is constantly asking itself whether it’s asking too much of parents.

Shea said East Valley is trying to be mindful of the balancing act of not asking too much – or too little – of parents.

Looking ahead, all four said plans for graduation ceremonies are still a work in progress, although Small expects to make a recommendation early next week.

Likewise, contingencies are already in place for next school year.

“We are trying to remain very flexible,” Russell said.

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