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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Smiles and glitches as Spokane Public Schools begins

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 14, 2020

Even by this year’s standards, the first day of class at Spokane Public Schools felt anything but normal.

Everyone rode the Monday morning roller coaster.

For 31,000 students and their families, it began with Superintendent Adam Swinyard’s earnest but upbeat video message and rode higher with emotional welcome-back messages from smiling teachers.

That those faces were on the other side of a laptop screen was almost an afterthought.

Everyone expected there would be no posing in front of the school with beaming parents, no apples for the teacher and certainly no hugs.

What they didn’t expect were the glitches in the operating system that frustrated kids and their parents – or the noxious air quality that kept everyone from taking a much-needed break outside.

One frustrated parent posted on the district’s Facebook page: “I’m pregnant and crabby and I don’t have the time to fully watch my kids do school and then to deal with all the tech errors.”

But for every pessimistic post there were two or three positive comments, some with directions on how to solve a particular problem.

“Give us the week and we’ll get it all figured out,” said Lori Wyborney, the principal at Rogers High School, who spent part of the morning connecting with students.

That kind of cup-half-full attitude may have helped everyone get through the day.

English Language Development teacher Emily Lefebvre was looking back on a fruitful morning of connecting with her Rogers students, reconnecting with others and trying to get on the same virtual page.

Lefebvre, now in her fourth year, said she likes ELD because it’s “very communal, because kids stay with us for several years and we become a community resource for them.”

Many of those kids are immigrants and refugees, often from lower-income families that have suffered disproportionately from school closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“And our kids come here for help with other courses for pretty much everything they need,” Lefebvre said. “They would even come in during breaks and after school.”

That wasn’t happening on Monday, and probably won’t for at least another two months, but Lefebvre is optimistic that the ELD program will thrive in the meantime.

A good sign was the 85% engagement rate for her students; last spring it was barely half that.

“I’m excited for the kids to get this experience,” said Lefebvre, who likes the district’s Microsoft Teams platform because of how it works with all the other programs.

“Also, the district provided a lot of professional development,” Lefebvre said.

It didn’t hurt that the district began the year with family conferences, an attempt to put everyone on the same virtual page.

“Until then I had a lot of families who didn’t know what was going on,” Wyborney said.

By all accounts, it was so successful that many want to scrap the traditional October conferences and move them to early September.

“It was a really good way to start the year,” Wyborney said.

The year began earlier in the day with a video from Swinyard.

After talking about a fresh start to “dreams and ambitions,” Swinyard acknowledged critics of the decision to begin the year with distance learning only.

However, he defended that choice as reflective of “our ongoing practice and commitment to comply with guidance and regulations of public health officials.”

That decision looked even better amid the smoky skies enveloping the region on Monday. Several districts that had opted for hybrid models were forced to cancel school entirely on Monday, and Mead extended its closure through Tuesday.

Swinyard also promised to phase back in-person learning when the time is appropriate.

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