The students, families and teachers of Spokane Public Schools will face all manner of uncertainties in the upcoming school year, Superintendent Adam Swinyard said Thursday.
Faced with questions about everything from the district’s fiscal situation to social-emotional learning to when and how students will return to class in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Swinyard could offer few details during a wide-ranging news conference.
But he did make one thing clear: The district wouldn’t cherry-pick the most convenient data to justify a potentially premature return to school.
Swinyard also acknowledged that beginning the year with distance learning only “was a disheartening recommendation to make” to the school board.
“We desperately want students in our buildings, and we recognize the significant impact on families and students when they’re not able to come into our school buildings, and all those factors were carefully considered when you made that recommendation,” Swinyard said.
On Wednesday night, the school board unanimously approved a Safe School Reopening Plan, a 27-page document that covers many details of distance learning and the protocols governing when the district would bring students back to school buildings.
The product of thousands of hours of work by hundreds of staffers and volunteers, the plan promises to be an improvement over the efforts of last spring.
However, it appears the district wasn’t quite ready to begin the school year on time. After negotiations with the Spokane Education Association, classes were pushed back from Sept. 3 to Sept. 15.
Officially, the year will begin on Sept. 8, but that week will be dominated by teacher-family conferences and transitional time for students to acclimate to the Microsoft Teams platform and “getting acquainted with the technology,” Swinyard said.
The other vexing question is how the district would pivot back to in-person learning – when and if infection rates drop.
Swinyard couldn’t offer a definitive answer, but he implied that the district would continue to follow local and state guidelines and recommendations.
“We are committed to that and not to pick and choose which guidelines to follow,” Swinyard said. “But we are eager to start phasing in as quickly as we can and hope to return them as quickly as we can.”
The reopening plan offered a commitment to addressing social-emotional learning and special education, but details are still being worked out for how many special-education students will receive in-person education.
The biggest uncertainty is finances. With state finances gutted by COVID-19, support for education faces a perilous future.
As expected, the board declared a financial emergency Wednesday night – a resolution that “reduced educational services and programs could create the necessity for a reduction of certificated and classified employees and to suspend the employee workload provisions of the certificated and classified bargaining agreements.”
Could that result in midyear layoffs or other cuts? Swinyard wouldn’t rule that out.
“We’ve received very clear communication from legislators that we should be mindful that reductions in funding are imminent,” Swinyard said.
“But we have a really strong team of accountants. … I think we will be looking at cost savings throughout the year,” Swinyard said.
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