Soon after the Spokane and Central Valley school districts announced Monday they will begin the new academic year with distance learning only, Kelly Shea’s inbox filled with emails.
“Most of them were pretty adamant that we shouldn’t do the same thing,” said Shea, the superintendent of the East Valley School District.
It was the same story in Riverside, where schools chief Ken Russell calls the back-to-school debate “the most polarizing topic I’ve ever experienced in my 28 years of education.”
And at Mead Public Schools, administrators are bracing for what promises to be a contentious board meeting Thursday night over the pros and cons of returning to the classroom.
In Spokane County’s smaller and more conservative districts, administrators are hearing it from both sides of the debate as they weigh whether to follow the lead of Spokane and Central Valley.
Following the “strong recommendation” of Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz, the county’s two largest districts have settled on distance learning.
Later on Monday, Cheney Public Schools did the same following a special board meeting despite a survey that showed 70% of parents preferred an onsite or hybrid solution.
“When you have a recommendation from the health district that is counter to that, it’s difficult for families,” Cheney Superintendent Robert Roettger said Tuesday.
“I understand that,” Roettger added. “We all want our students back in the classroom … but we’re not health experts.”
Whether to defer to those experts will be an emotional issue for at least a few more weeks.
However, time is running out, and most local districts are still weighing their options.
At East Valley, the school year begins on Sept. 2, which means Shea and his staff must submit a plan to the state by Aug. 19.
Shea expects the district to do just that at the last possible moment, during a special board meeting scheduled for Aug. 18.
“We are taking our time to see how things unfold, because we’re trying to find a solution that will work for everyone,” Shea said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating, that won’t be easy.
At Mead, the battle lines have been drawn on social media. The district’s Facebook page is filled with hundreds of comments from both sides.
“Please take working parents into consideration,” posted Tyler Mace. “Our jobs don’t stop because of a virus. What are we supposed to do with our kids if schools don’t open?
“Will the district pay for child care and tutors. What about kids with special learning needs? Distance learning didn’t work last spring. Our kids need to get back in school.”
Nikki Hickman countered that “the health and safety of our children and their teachers, bus drivers, custodians, etc. should be first priority.”
“It is not safe to open, stop procrastinating the inevitable and give us an actual plan for distance learning,” Hickman said.
Mead Superintendent Shawn Woodward did not respond to phone messages Tuesday afternoon. However the district said Monday the school board “will be approving its 2020-21 school year reopening plans” on Thursday.
At West Valley, new Superintendent Kyle Rydell said the district is “still in the planning process” but is shifting toward opening on Sept. 9 with distance learning only.
“We want to return to our buildings, but we need to do so in a safe manner,” Rydell said.
The West Valley board is expected to approve a final plan at its next meeting on Aug. 17.
Meanwhile, time is running out at Riverside, where the school year begins on Aug. 26. The school board met Tuesday night to discuss its options.
“We have to study this a little bit more,” said Russell, who noted that part of his district lies in Pend Oreille County. For that reason, Riverside will also rely on guidance from other health districts.
“We really need to pause and be thoughtful,” Russell said.
Likewise, the Nine Mile Falls District lies partly in Stevens County, which could lessen the district’s reliance on guidance from Spokane County.
In a letter sent to parents last week, Superintendent Brian Talbott said the district has “multiple plans moving forward.”
At Gonzaga Prep, administrators sent a letter to families on Tuesday which referenced Lutz’s recommendations, but added they are “discerning this recommendation and we intend to inform our community of our plans for instruction to begin the school year by August 18.”
The letter, signed by President Michael Dougherty and Principal Cindy Reopelle, continued: “Over the next two weeks we will work with the Health District, families, faculty, staff, and our Board of Directors to identify measures that can balance the safety of our community with the value of in-person instruction.”
Many institutions are still weighing their options. They include districts in Freeman, Deer Park, Medical Lake, as well as St. George’s, Northwest Christian and St. Aloysius.
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