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How do you reopen schools in a pandemic? Washington state superintendent candidates have different ideas

Sept. 24, 2020 Updated Mon., Oct. 12, 2020 at 11:09 p.m.

Incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal faces Maia Espinoza in the November 2020 election.
Incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal faces Maia Espinoza in the November 2020 election.

The role of the superintendent of public instruction has changed as the COVID-19 pandemic forced school districts to decide how to reopen or stay remote.

Candidates vying for the position in November have different ideas about what schooling during a pandemic should look like.

Incumbent Chris Reykdal, who leads the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, has made decisions with Gov. Jay Inslee about how schools should move forward this fall. He announced a guidance plan that left the decision up to school districts.

His opponent, Maia Espinoza, thinks he could have done more. She said parents need more support from OSPI when it comes to distance learning as many districts still scramble to come up with plans, leaving parents to decide at the last minute how to provide for their children.

Espinoza finished second in the August primary with 25.3% of the votes, less than 5 percentage points above the third-place finisher, Ron Higgins. Reykdal finished first with 40.2% of the votes.

Northwest Passages Virtual Forum / The Spokesman-Review

Since first closing in March, Reykdal said school districts have made “light years of progress” when it comes to online learning.

The state has distributed devices across the state so almost every student has one, he said. Teachers have been trained significantly more for online programs.

Espinoza said she does not think the state has provided any clear leadership on how to safely open again. She called the language in the state’s guidelines “prohibitive.”

The current administration has provided more guidance for what not to do than what to do, Espinoza said.

“I think the lack of leadership in the current superintendent’s office has left school districts with more questions and answers and more problems than solutions,” she said.

Reykdal countered that, because Washington focuses so heavily on local control, at the end of the day, it had to be up to school districts.

“That doesn’t mean it’s easy,” Reykdal said. “But what we don’t do is force a lot of mandates, because we don’t think we have the authority in most cases.”

Espinoza said there needs to be a way to safely send kids back to school.

It should be up to the districts, Espinoza said, but if a district is in a position to reopen, it should be provided with better guidance on how to safely reopen. It shouldn’t be a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Reykdal said his job is to walk alongside local districts as they develop their plans with local health authorities and make sure they have everything they need when to reopen.

One of the biggest questions that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic is how to make learning more equitable.

Inslee and Reykdal announced in August that $8 million of federal money would be used to improve connectivity and provide internet services for families in the free and reduced lunch program. The state partnered with providers to allow school districts to give internet service to students in need.

Reykdal said he hopes to do more. He said his office just submitted their biennial budget request, and one of his biggest priorities was improving connectivity.

“We’re asking the Legislature to begin to formally recognize connectivity as a basic education right,” he said.

Espinoza said once the legislative session starts in January, she would immediately begin advocating for more digital infrastructure development in rural parts of the state.

Regardless of what the COVID situation is in January, students need to be supported in digital learning, Espinoza said.

“This digital component of education happens to be necessary now,” Espinoza said. “It’s really been crucial for many years, and we’ve just been late to the party.”

The way to improve inequities in school districts is by providing more options, Espinoza said, whether it’s more choices for families or more electives for students in school.

The state needs to meet kids where they are, she said.

Other ways to improve equity include changing discipline standards, creating flexible evaluation standards and increasing the number of counselors and social workers at high-poverty schools, Reykdal said.

“This is everything to me,” he said. “We are focused on closing gaps, and we have been doing that.”

Espinoza said once she gets in office, one of her biggest concerns will be the new comprehensive sexual health education bill. Espinoza has said the reason she got into the race was because of the new mandate. She helped gather signatures to put Referendum 90 on the ballot this November.

She said she opposes the new state requirement for public schools to teach sex education and believes it should be up to parents and school districts to decide. She also does not think much of the material is age-appropriate, something she said the Legislature failed to look at before passing the law.

If Referendum 90 does pass in November, she said she would work to identify additional curriculum options that would comply with state law.

Reykdal has said the curriculum is age-appropriate and the law gives plenty of flexibility to school districts and parents, allowing districts to choose their own curriculum and parents to opt their children out. He said it allows for more parental protections than in the current law.

Espinoza wants to reimagine education in Washington, starting with the way OSPI interacts with districts. She said there is a top-down approach to education, arguing that mandates such as the sex ed bill should be decided at a local level.

The next superintendent of public instruction should have a plan that goes past the pandemic and past the controversial sex ed bill, Reykdal said.

Some of his ideas for the next four years include redesigning early literacy programs, improving career- and tech-education programs, and strengthening the dual-language programs across the state.

“We have a comprehensive vision from pre-kindergarten all the way up to higher education and job training,” he said.

Reykdal accuses Espinoza of lies in the voters’ guide. He accused Espinoza twice of lying in her statement, and even took her to court over it once.

Reykdal accused Espinoza of lying about receiving a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Western Governors University. In a Washington State Wire virtual debate on Sept. 17, Espinoza admitted to not having received the degree.

She said she had finished all her credits and only needed to finish her thesis, which she hoped to do before the general election. Still, Espinoza listed the degree in the primary voters’ guide in August.

At the debate, Espinoza said it was a “non-issue.” She did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Spokesman-Review.

Reykdal also sued Espinoza in early July over a sentence in her voter-guide statement that claimed he championed a policy that teaches “sexual positions to 4th graders,” referring to Reykdal’s support for the comprehensive sexual health education bill.

The line in question refers to supplemental reading recommended in a handout from one of a list of curricula reviewed by OSPI. Espinoza argued it is her job as a parent to point out examples of where the material is not age-appropriate.

Reykdal has said the material is a third-party source that parents could use in addition to what is being taught. It is never anything he would recommend teachers give to students, he said at the time.

“What she claims, doesn’t exist in the law or policy or in state level standards,” he said. “The voters have to decide now.”

Reykdal won in Superior Court, as the judge agreed the statement was false. The state Supreme Court ruled against him in August, saying he would not have won a defamation case. The court did not weigh in on the truthfulness of the sentence. Espinoza kept it in her statement.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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