Gov. Jay Inslee found what he was looking for on Tuesday: confirmation.
During a two-hour visit to Stevens Elementary School in northeast Spokane, Inslee heard from politicians and principals, teachers and students about the benefits of in-person learning despite the hazards of COVID-19.
But the most gratifying message likely came from kindergartner Jesse Jones, who told Inslee that “Your hard work is the best.”
“That is really nice of you to say,” he said before walking over and presenting a ribbon honoring Jesse as the “most inspiring Washingtonian of the day.”
Thoroughly inspired, Inslee took it from there as he moved from room to room and talked about everything from dogs to “Star Wars” to how much fun it is to be in class, even when you have to wear a mask.
Inslee’s overarching message: For the sake of the children, they need to be in class.
Statewide, most are not, because the majority of districts in Puget Sound are still distance learning. Inslee’s visit doubled as a pat on the back for Spokane – where every student who chooses to will soon see the inside of a classroom – and a poke at reluctant teachers in Seattle.
Inslee visited several classrooms, where teachers and students offered more confirmation of Inslee’s message from December that the risk of in-school COVID-19 transmission isn’t linked to learning models and that the benefits of being in a classroom outweigh the risks.
One kindergartner told him that learning from home “doesn’t make me feel very good.” Another said that masks are “easy to wear.”
Upstairs, teacher David Dehlbom and his sixth-graders were acclimating to in-person learning after five months of staying home.
Inslee walked in and asked the students to “raise your hands if you think this is better than being online.”
All did so, accompanied by comments such as “You can understand a lot more,” and “You get more help.”
And from Dehlbom, the observation that “I get to see all their beautiful faces every day.”
Like his colleagues, Dehlbom reported few problems during the transition to in-person learning. He also cited the connections made during in-person sessions.
In Spokane district schools, fifth- and sixth-graders are in a hybrid system, learning in-class two days a week and the rest of the time from home.
“Now we can teach a lesson in person, and then it has been activated for distance learning,” Dehlbom said.
A few moments later, Inslee sat down for a roundtable discussion with a group of 15 adults – mostly teachers and administrators, who offered more confirmation.
Most of it came from Adam Swinyard, the Spokane Public Schools superintendent, and Jeremy Shay, president of the local teachers’ union, the Spokane Education Association.
Both emphasized the importance of communication – “even when Jeremy called me at 7:30 on Sunday night,” Swinyard said.
Shay said that mitigation “is more than distancing and masks.” He also praised the district for increasing air flow inside buildings and holding webinars for teachers.
“It’s been a real partnership,” Shay said.
Inslee sat back and told the group he was “impressed with the collegiality and the teamwork.”
During the news conference that followed, Inslee noted that residents are receiving 40,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine every day and that teachers are moving up the line.
However, he couldn’t offer an estimate of when they would reach the head of that line.
“Not next week,” he said.
At the same time, Inslee defended his decision to prioritize residents aged 65 and up, at the expense of teachers.
“We have to take care of those 65 and up, because they represent 90% of fatalities,” he said.
Teachers, he said, should feel safe.
“I have a few dogs in this hunt,” Inslee said. “I have four grandchildren, and I wouldn’t have sent my grandkids into an atmosphere that wasn’t safe.”
That too, was a message to teachers in the Puget Sound, especially Seattle Public Schools, where a plan to send kindergartners and first-graders back to in-person learning next week broke down during negotiations with the teachers union.
“This is a story that I can share,” Inslee said.
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