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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A Washington bill to waive some graduation requirements in emergencies is closer to becoming law

University High School main building is seen Jan. 30, 2020 in Spokane Valley.   (JESSE TINSLEY)

OLYMPIA – The Washington State House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that would waive some graduation requirements for individual students during a state of emergency – an effort to help some students who may have struggled during the last year of online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill is a more permanent extension of a measure passed last session, which allowed school districts to provide temporary waivers for students in the class of 2020 who were on track to graduate before the pandemic disrupted their learning.

“At the time, we had no idea that the COVID-19 pandemic would continue to shape our lives and restrict our activities nearly one year later,” Rep. Sharon Tamiko Santos, D-Seattle, said on the House floor.

The bill approved Wednesday allows school districts to provide emergency waivers from testing requirements or credit requirements if a local, state or national emergency causes significant disruption to a student’s schooling. School districts would have to apply through the State Board of Education, which can adopt rules on how to administer the waivers.

It would put in place a permanent authority for the State Board of Education during states of emergency or national declarations of emergency.

Opponents of the bill raised concerns about waiving requirements and the effect on students’ preparedness for further education. Those opposed also brought up concerns about a lack of accountability for how the waivers are being used. Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said in committee last week he was worried it could undermine the value of a high school diploma.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said the bill gave legislators “no good choice” that could set up students for potential failure whether they graduate on time or not. “Just passing them out doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve set them up for success,” he said.

Scott Kerwien, director of college and career readiness at Spokane Public Schools, said school districts don’t use these guidelines to waive the maximum amount possible for students. Counselors look at individual student’s requirements and their post-high school plans to help determine if anything should be waived, he said.

“It’s not a magic wand-waving for all students,” Kerwien said. “That would not encourage them to keep pushing toward the finish line. That’s nobody’s pursuit.”

The statewide requirements for graduation include:

  • 24 total credits, including 17 mandatory core credits and 7 elective credits
  • Graduation pathway, such as a state assessment, dual credit, AP exam, SAT or ACT test

Schools already have the option to waive two of the elective credits if all the other requirements are met . If students have a specific plan beyond high school, but they failed an elective unrelated to that plan, schools are able to waive those credits.

If the bill passed Wednesday becomes a law, schools would have a bit more flexibility to waive the graduation pathway requirement if students could not complete in-person testing due to COVID-19. Many in-person assessments, such as the ACT or SAT, were canceled last year because of the pandemic, Kerwien said.

The new bill could also allow for districts to waive more elective credits than the two they are currently allowed, although Kerwien said counselors would continue to look on a student-by-student basis for the fewest number of requirements they can waive.

Not many students at Spokane Public Schools needed the waiver in 2020, Kerwien said. Many teachers understood where students were last year and assessed them based on the most important information to pass a class.

Last year, 56 students in Spokane Public Schools received COVID-related waivers, according to the district. That’s about 2.9% of 2020 graduates. Statewide, 3.3% of all students used an emergency COVID-19 waiver.

Mead School District spokesman Todd Zeidler said waivers were used sparingly in the district last year and only when students exhausted all other avenues to meet graduation requirements. Exact numbers weren’t immediately available , Zeidler said.

“We hold our students to a high standard for graduation, but recognize the need for the emergency waiver in special circumstances like a global pandemic where students are impacted through no fault of their own,” he wrote in an email.

Washington saw its highest graduation rate in 2020, with the 4-year graduation rate reaching 82.9%. Some lawmakers shared concerns that the reason the number was so high was because of the number of waivers used.

“We need accountability,” Walsh said. “We need a firm and clear understanding of how they’re being used and why.”

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is in the process of compiling data on how the waivers in 2020 were used and how that affected graduation rates.

As part of the bill, school districts would be required to maintain records and provide the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education with data from the classes of 2020 and 2021 on how the waivers were used. The state board would then provide data to the Legislature.

Supporters said providing emergency waivers helps students who worked hard and may be missing only a few credits because of reasons beyond their control, such as school closures and online classes.

“It gives hope to our students,” Cindy McMullen, of the Washington State School Association, told House Education Committee members last week.

Randy Spaulding, of the Washington State Board of Education, told committee members last week that without the bill, no authority would exist for the state board to assist in waiving requirements.

Ultimately, the decision is a local conversation with individual students to determine what they need to graduate, he said.

Many students are already facing barriers to education in the pandemic, such as unreliable internet or working a part-time job, Kerwien said. The emergency waivers would remove another barrier for many students. Electives shouldn’t be another barrier for graduation, he said.

“Acknowledging the difficulty of distance learning on students who have the most barriers in front of them means we need to acknowledge what’s important to them for their post-secondary plan,” he said.

The House also passed a bill that would allow private schools to maintain approval status when they are unable to meet minimum school days or instructional hours requirements due to an emergency. Private schools are currently required to have no less than 180 school days or an equivalent of minimum instructional hour offerings of 1,000 hours for students enrolled in first through 12th grade and at least 450 hours for kindergartners.

The bills will be considered in the Senate before going into effect; if they pass, they would go into effect immediately.

The bills were one of lawmakers’ early action priorities relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bills related to unemployment insurance and foreclosure assistance are also expected to be debated this week.

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.