The first day of classes in Spokane Public Schools this fall is looking more and more like it will occur in students’ homes, the district’s new superintendent conceded this week.
“With each passing day, I am less and less optimistic that the guidance we receive will enable us to open our buildings,” Adam Swinyard told several hundred audience members during a webinar Thursday evening.
That guidance will come from state and local health officials, which Swinyard said the district expects in the coming days. Other states and school districts nationwide have already delayed the opening of their buildings due to fears of coronavirus spread, while districts in Spokane County have moved forward with planning that incorporates in-person instruction and distance learning options that educators acknowledge is less ideal than face-to-face teaching.
“This thing continues to evolve,” said East Valley School District Superintendent Kelly Shea, whose district has waited for more clear guidance from health officials before finalizing plans for the fall. “I just wanted us to have the most current information available to us, before we made any final decision.”
But the date for making a final decision is rapidly approaching for many districts, including Spokane Public Schools. The district heard that it needed to provide more structure and consistency in its online offerings, Swinyard said. Students should expect a more structured at-home school day than in the spring, with both start and dismissal times and live teacher instruction for students completing work in their own houses or at care facilities. The change is intended to address parent concern that instruction during the hastily organized spring term lacked consistency and feedback from teachers.
“In the spring, there was a lot of autonomy,” Swinyard said, noting students chose when to complete their coursework and many classes only met live once per week, if at all, through the use of digital meeting software.
“Our updated plan has much more structure and routine,” Swinyard said. “We really believe that having structure and routine is important for our kids.”
Students will use Microsoft Teams as a primary source of contact with other students and their teacher, who will be available during the school day to provide live instruction and feedback, Swinyard said. There will be set schedules for both secondary and elementary students to complete certain coursework. The superintendent used the example of a set time for younger students to practice math skills, which might start with live instruction from a teacher via Teams that then changes to small group or independent work that a teacher would be present to assist with, then finish with more live instruction and feedback.
Specialty classes including music and health and fitness would still be offered virtually and built into the school day, Swinyard said. But they’ll “look different.”
Students requiring special education services, including counseling and an individualized education plan (IEP), would receive that assistance online per a plan that will be developed before the school year begins, said Becky Ramsey, the district’s director of special education. If the counseling services are unsuccessful, students can be brought into buildings in groups of five or fewer for in-person services, Ramsey said.
All students will be able to check out laptops from the district to complete their coursework, Swinyard said.
Districts received guidance from the state early this summer that while face-to-face instruction would be the goal, they should also prepare for virtual learning.
The Central Valley School District designed its reopening plan, which has already been approved by the district’s school board, with what district spokeswoman Marla Nunberg called “a virtual backbone” that can be adapted based on health official guidance about whether buildings should be open.
“If at some point we are in-person, and we need to close a school or part of a school, we have the ability to put them in the virtual learning option,” Nunberg said.
The Central Valley plan, which Nunberg said could be adapted based on the requirements for opening laid out by health officials, includes dividing some buildings into “zones” so that if an infection occurs, the district might be able to keep at least part of a building open rather than shutting down completely. That plan still needs to be vetted by health experts.
The Post Falls School District’s board of trustees approved a reopening plan this week that includes a color-coded system that will determine whether buildings are open or move to remote learning. Coeur d’Alene Public Schools will submit their plan for reopening to trustees at a meeting Monday evening, with notification of parents and students to occur in the afternoon.
West Valley and Mead school districts have also sought input from parents and plan to release reopening plans in the coming days.
Shea said schools will have to be flexible as they begin classes this fall. Even when buildings are allowed to reopen, there will be families not yet ready to send their kids back.
“We have some families say they’re not comfortable until there’s a vaccine. Other families say, ‘I’m not sending my child back to school if they’re required to wear a mask,’ ” he said.
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