The start of the 2020-21 school year in Spokane is less than 40 days away, and many questions remain about what classes will look like when buildings reopen, if they even reopen at all.
Both the labor union representing 3,200 teachers and specialists in the district and school administrators say they’re working to make the best of a bad situation, as COVID-19 cases continue to spike in the region and educators across Washington worry about returning to buildings.
“There are a million questions that haven’t been answered yet, that preclude us from going back to school,” said Jeremy Shay, president of the Spokane Education Association. “Really, they shouldn’t be questions that need to be answered by school districts.”
Those questions include protocols for how notification should occur if a student or teacher gets sick, whether that building or a classroom should be closed down, and what types of indicators are necessary to open buildings at all when classes resume Sept. 3.
Mark Anderson, associate superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, said Friday the district anticipated receiving guidance from the Spokane Regional Health District by the beginning of August on necessary steps to reopen buildings. That will leave a little more than a month for the district to develop a plan for school board approval, register students for online or face-to-face learning, and create a staffing plan to accommodate those students. The window will be tight, with as little as two weeks for families to make decisions about learning in the fall that could be binding for the first several months of the school year.
“We’re developing a plan for when we reopen,” Anderson said. “The ‘when’ is the question.”
The district held webinars the past two weeks addressing what school will look like when buildings reopen. Here are answers to the questions that were asked most frequently.
Will students have to wear a mask? How will it be enforced?
While Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal has left the development of reopening plans largely up to individual school districts, the state has provided some minimum requirements should buildings reopen. One of those requirements is that students, staff and visitors wear a face covering at all times while on campus.
“The reality of it is it’s going to be a challenge,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard told an online audience Thursday evening.
If a student removes their mask for any reason, teachers and school staff are prepared to handle the situation as they would any other safety violation, Anderson said.
While the district anticipates that some instructors will be able to use face shields instead of masks in certain classrooms while socially distant from students, including those in primary and foreign language classrooms, any time a person is in a building they’ll be required to wear a face covering. That’s also true for riding buses to and from schools.
How will the district screen for COVID-19 symptoms?
The district is still developing an option that would allow families to screen for fevers and other symptoms at home before their students arrive on campus, to prevent long waits before they can enter classrooms. That includes the use of a cellphone application, either provided by a third-party or developed in-house.
“What we don’t want is a bottleneck of students lined up at the door,” said Becky Doughty, director of health services at Spokane Public Schools. “Particularly at the high school level. We’re working on a way to get them into the building safely and efficiently.”
Staff will also be required to check for symptoms before beginning their day.
How will the district limit the number of students in the building to comply with social distancing?
Initial plans floated by the district limit the number of students in classrooms to 21, in an effort to space desks 6 feet apart and allow room for instructors. For kindergarten through 4th grade, students would attend class each day during the school week. For grades 5 and up, students would attend classes in person on one day, then take home work to complete the next day.
The district plans to have older siblings attending classes on the same schedule, and are in talks with day care providers to offer services for families whose parents have to work but whose students are on a rolling schedule.
“There are child care providers that are coming forward to partner with us,” said Oscar Harris, coordinator of Family Support & Community Engagement for the district.
Those providers, which could appear on a list provided by the district, would incorporate the district’s academic offerings into their day.
How will families be notified if there’s an outbreak?
The lack of an established protocol for notifying families, students and staff about a positive diagnosis in a school is one of the many reasons Shay said educators are wary to return to classrooms.
“No one has given guidance, there’s no way for us to address that one issue,” Shay said. “It’s not a question of if that’s going to happen, it will happen.”
Anderson said that will be part of the information provided by the health district to schools. For other infectious diseases such as the measles and mumps, it has been the health district that has provided a process for notification of families, Anderson said, sometimes providing the notification themselves.
Local health officers across the state of Washington are expected to meet over the weekend, and additional information on notification of cases may be available this week.
When will parents have to make a decision about keeping their kids home?
In order for a reopening plan to receive both school board and state approval in time for the beginning of the school year, the district hopes to consider a final proposal at the regular school board meeting Aug. 12.
That would give families a two-week window to decide whether they want to send their student back to classrooms or choose a distance-learning option. That’s all contingent upon health officials at the local and state level approving the district’s plans for reopening.
“The answer to the question, that helps us staff our buildings, and lets us know the number of staff we need for the distance learning component as well,” Anderson said of registration.
Students who opt for the full distance-learning option would still be assigned to their neighborhood school, he said, and would remain in distance learning until restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.
Can that decision be changed?
Because staffing decisions will be based on registration numbers, families that choose to keep their children at home may have to live with that decision for a while. When they are able to return, it may be to a different building in the district, Anderson said.
“It may not be as quick as ‘I want my student to go back to school next Monday,’ ” Anderson said. “There may be a waiting period to see if we have space available.”
If enough students come forward wanting to return to school, the district could reassign a teacher who’d been leading a classroom online back into a school building.
Shay said the district and the union had not yet begun discussions about who would be teaching in-person, and who would be working remotely.
Teachers have indicated apprehension about returning to classrooms. How will that be considered in the plans?
The Washington Education Association released a statement last week calling on Gov. Jay Inslee to mandate that classes begin remotely for the 2020-21 school year, citing the safety of teachers and students and the likelihood both would catch the virus if classes were held in buildings.
Shay said an internal survey that showed half of 1,400 respondents were concerned about safety when returning to classrooms was meant to be a preliminary count and shouldn’t be read as the consensus of the bargaining group’s final position for its 3,200 members. But, he said, there were too many questions still unanswered for the association to feel comfortable about returning to buildings, even as teachers want to return to seeing their students and a more normal instruction day.
The state has left it up to local school districts to determine safe reopening strategies for themselves, Shay said, which doesn’t inspire confidence in the community or educators alike.
“That is not how we would deal with any other infectious outbreak,” he said.
Anderson said the district administration is monitoring concerns by educators about reopening plans.
“Our hope is that either the governor or health officials give us the health guidelines we need,” he said.
What will lunch look like?
Students in elementary schools will eat in their classrooms, while those in secondary schools may have different procedures based on the spacing available in each building. That could mean lunches in hallways, 6 feet apart, in larger gathering areas or in classrooms, Anderson said.
Rather than lining up to be served, the district is developing a grab-and-go menu with hot or cold items, he said. For younger students, the district’s nutritional staff may deliver meals directly to classrooms.
Will there be improvements in the schools to increase air flow and reduce transmission?
After buildings shuttered in March, the district changed the control settings on ventilation systems to bring more fresh oxygen into buildings. That was done to fight against stagnant aerosol particles, exposure to which has been linked with a higher chance of infection.
In addition, the district plans to include frequent outdoor breaks for students attending class in person, as often as once per hour for students in younger grades.
“Our intent is to have our students outdoors as much as possible,” Swinyard said.
What about social services for special needs students?
Many of the district’s counseling services can be provided virtually if a student chooses to remain home for learning, said Becky Ramsey, director of special education for the district.
“We’re going to prioritize in-person services when it’s safe to do so,” she said.
Many parents asked about individualized education program, or IEP, students, and what kinds of services would be available for those students that require one-on-one instruction. The district intends to pair families with instructors early in the school year to determine what types of services they need, Ramsey said.
Whether buildings open or remain shut, the district does intend to provide preschool services for the 2020-21 school year, Ramsey said.
“If we’re in a virtual format, we will provide virtual preschool services,” she said.
How different will distance learning be?
Swinyard said the district heard from families that online learning options needed to be more consistent for the next school year, after the swift switch to distance learning last spring.
“What families can anticipate is more consistency, more routines, and something that resembles more of a school-day schedule,” Swinyard said.
That means using Microsoft Teams for communication in elementary and secondary grade levels, he said. Anderson said the district already has a virtual learning platform set up for those in high school grades, and that younger students would use what’s called SPS At Home, which would see teachers having digital class times with students and providing feedback throughout the day.
Shay said many questions remain from educators about what online learning will look like in the fall as well.
“For our most vulnerable students, we want to make sure they have everything they need,” he said.
The district is planning a third webinar this Thursday at 6:30 p.m. that will give an overview of distance-learning options that will be provided for those families uncomfortable with returning to buildings in September.