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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  K-12 education

It’s a long road to get back to school

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said the district will need to “get creative” and use other spaces to deal with social distancing requirements.  (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said the district will need to “get creative” and use other spaces to deal with social distancing requirements. (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Public Schools is doing the math, and so far it doesn’t add up.

If students are to return to school this fall, about 20 will fit inside a typical classroom and still comply with social distancing requirements in the face of COVID-19.

That’s one of the two major obstacles to fulfillment of state superintendent Chris Reykdal’s desire to see all children return to face-to-face instruction.

The other is personal.

“A lot of our community members have been incredibly vocal about the issue of their kids wearing masks all day,” said Jerrall Haynes, president of the Spokane school board and a member of the task force that will chart the district’s course back to the classroom.

No one is quite sure what that will look like.

“It changes every day,” Haynes said. “The state superintendent wants us to be back in person, and that’s our hope as well.”

Should that prove impractical – or if learning happens in hybrid form, as most educators expect – Spokane and other districts are formulating backup plans encompassing every phase of education.

In Spokane a steering committee and eight sub-committees, with 150 members all told, will attempt cover the details.

For example, the Elementary Education panel will address scoping and sequencing, digital tools for teachers, grading and feedback, professional development on blended learning and more.

Other panels will cover secondary education, special education, English language development, intervention services, technological support, full distance-learning options and extracurricular and athletics.

But even with about 20 people assigned to each committee, the district isn’t presuming all the bases are covered.

The variables are profound.

The state budget faces a $4.5 billion hole over the next year as the economy contracts and tax revenues fall from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The projected revenues for the two years after that also are expected to be down $4.3 billion from previous estimates, state Chief Economist Stephen Lerch told legislators Wednesday.

That means the state is looking at a “substantially worse” financial situation than the projections used by the Legislature to write a budget earlier this year before the virus hit.

If the Legislature calls for a special session – “not a question of if, but when,” said Rep. Timm Ormsby of Spokane – there’s a chance of schools losing funding in mid-year instead of later.

Even if they don’t, schools must be prepared to fund ramped-up distance learning.

In Spokane, Superintendent Shelley Redinger is expected to submit a preliminary budget that reflects updated equity goals approved on June 10.

Among those is a promise to “maximize in-person education time and focus on relationship building and student engagement during periods of remote/distance learning.”

That appears to be the direction in which Spokane and other districts will move in the face of two other daunting uncertainties: what will be the state of COVID-19 two months from now, and how will families deal with it?

Given those variables, Reykdal’s wish may be wishful thinking.

In Spokane, very few classes are small enough to fit inside a typical classroom and still comply with 6-foot social-distancing requirements.

According to Spokane Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson, most are about 925 square feet, which would allow for one teacher and 18 to 21 students, the latter being spread out to the walls and windows.

Based on last year’s numbers, only a small percentage of classes district-wide would meet those guidelines.

For the others, Redinger said the district will need to “get creative” and use other spaces – spare rooms, cafeterias, gymnasiums and others.

That would seem far-fetched but for two other major unknowns from both ends of the spectrum:

Come this fall – assuming that the coronavirus is still an issue – how many parents will elect to keep their children home for safety reasons?

And how many parents will balk at the idea of their children being social-distanced, screened every morning and compelled to wear a mask for up to 7 hours a day?

Together, those groups might include enough children to allow the rest to return full-time.

Conceivably, that could help fulfill the board’s equity goals, as low-income families – many of whom lack internet connectivity – might be more inclined to send their children back to buildings.

In other words, the best-case scenario would be that every family seeking face-to-face education would be able to do so.

On the other hand, how would teachers cope with the work load associated with having some students fully face-to-face, others fully distance-learning and still others rotating between?

“We’re seeking as much clarity as we can,” Associate Superintendent Adam Swinyard told the board Wednesday night. “There’s a lot of fluidity, and this is going to evolve.

“We are in the process of modeling this out,” Swinyard said. “What is the capacity – 18 or 21 – and how does that interact with the furniture, etc?”

To get some answers, the district is surveying parents on what they’re inclined to do this fall. A follow-up survey will go out later in the summer, Anderson said.

“Our current status is that we are developing an online component, so that if parents choose to keep their kids home,” Anderson said.

The district hopes to have final plans in place by the end of July, Anderson said.

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