March 2, 2021 Seattle Times

Struggling Washington state high school seniors are getting a hand in fulfilling their graduation requirements, as Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law on Tuesday a measure to aid students whose education has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Roughly 70% of Washington students are still learning remotely. With online learning and a constantly changing situation, many high schoolers who were on track to graduate have fallen behind.

“This bill will help students succeed in their life’s ambitions. Our students have demonstrated significant resilience in the face of our recent hardship,” Inslee said at the bill signing.

After being fast-tracked by the Legislature, HB 1121 takes effect immediately.

Last spring, the Legislature had the State Board of Education (SBE) create a temporary waiver program for seniors after school was suddenly brought online throughout Washington. The last-minute measure was passed the last day of session and expired in July 2020.

The SBE said 12,000 waivers were issued last year, 3,000 of which were related to credits and 9,000 to assessments.

HB 1121 picks up where the 2020 waiver left off, this time permanently giving the SBE authority to grant school districts emergency waivers for the next cohorts of graduating seniors.

The new law allows for individual students to waive credit or testing requirements if their ability to complete them was disrupted by the pandemic. Schools are still expected to help students meet requirements as normal before falling back on the emergency waiver as a last resort.

And it goes far beyond COVID-19 relief. The bill gives the SBE ongoing power to allow graduation requirement waivers in any unforeseen situations in the future.

As public emergencies and disasters arise, the SBE can give school districts the ability to start issuing their students emergency waivers on a case-by-case basis. That way, should another emergency happen, it won’t take an act of the Legislature to help affected seniors graduate.

Without the temporary authority to grant emergency waivers last year, the SBE estimates as many as 10,000 fewer students in Washington would have graduated.

Cindy McMullen, a school board member from the Central Valley School District, said 169 out of 996 graduating seniors in her district used the waiver last spring. Though the district worked with those students to try to fulfill the normal requirements, she said, “it simply wasn’t humanly possible.”

She said she expects that number to decrease this year with a better-prepped online education, but won’t reach zero.

“We still have students who are struggling with the current circumstances …,” she said at a hearing in January. “We don’t believe that because they had to deal with this crisis situation they should be penalized.”

Some opponents worry about the quality of education under the new rules. Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said that letting students bypass requirements may devalue a high school diploma.

A minority of waivers were to excuse credit or subject requirements. Most students had a problem finishing the state’s “graduation pathway” requirement, which can only be fulfilled through dual credit courses or through standardized tests, like the SAT and AP exams, many of which were canceled.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sharon Santos, D-Seattle, said there are better ways to show that students are college- or career-ready, especially under pandemic conditions.

“COVID-19 has shown us that we, meaning state government, have to be prepared for anything,” Santos said. “Who knows what the next emergency might be?”