Washington education officials have a new message for the state’s schools: buildings may be closed, but school must go on.
The state’s Education Department released guidance Monday that calls on school districts to provide some form of instruction while schools are closed because of the novel coronavirus.
The guidance represents the first time the state has said that across-the-board, some form of instruction is mandatory. Districts must resume class in some format by March 30, a spokesperson for the state Education Department said. Beyond that, the state offered few mandates of what instruction should look like.
“Although schools are closed and are not providing traditional in-person instruction, education must continue,” the new guidelines read. “We have an obligation to our students to provide them with opportunities to continue their learning during this pandemic.”
The state’s new guidelines are loose and leave room for interpretation. Officials are asking schools to develop weekly plans for students, including those with disabilities, and to contact families on a regular basis. Teachers are expected to monitor students’ progress, help them set goals and offer online or paper-based instruction depending on students’ preferences. Along with the guidance, education officials created a long list of free virtual tools for teachers, students and parents and offered a sample “plan” for how districts could roll out distance learning.
Last week, the state Education Department encouraged districts to focus their attention on high school seniors. On Thursday, the state’s Board of Education will consider a program that allows districts to waive certain graduation requirements.
In the week since Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all public and private schools closed, districts have had leeway to offer remote instruction or not; state law gives districts local control over many aspects of education. While there was no clear mandate on instruction, Inslee said districts were expected to provide food to those who need it and offer child care to certain groups of kids.
Last week, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal told The Seattle Times that union contracts require teachers to continue teaching, so long as they’re being paid. But there is no specific statutory requirement that school goes on when buildings are closed, he said.
Several districts have already moved to some form of remote learning, such as White River School District — or are planning to do so, as Bellevue and Seattle Public Schools have said.
But some school districts such as Tacoma Public Schools said they didn’t intend to continue instruction in any form. Tacoma and other districts have suspended school out of concern that they can’t offer education to all students in an equitable way.
The new guidelines will force such districts to rethink their plans, said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). “We’re changing our direction to say now you will be providing learning,” she said. OSPI plans to collect data from districts on a weekly basis, she said, to monitor their instruction plans, but also the number of meals they distribute and child care slots they fill.
What remained unclear as of late Monday: whether students are required to complete assignments and attend online sessions with teachers and their peers. The guidance asks districts to consider adopting pass/fail grading in place of letter grades, but doesn’t make this a requirement.
How teachers will reach Washington’s youngest learners, such as those in grades K-3, is also uncertain. These students may have trouble staying focused for hours at a time in front of a computer, or they might be in day care, away from the one-on-one attention of a parent or guardian.
The guidance also offers few tips for how to meet obligations to English learners or children in special education, who may benefit from personalized education plans that are difficult to replicate remotely. OSPI is drafting advice for how to best serve these students and homeless children, Payne said.
On Saturday, the U.S. Department of Education urged school districts to find creative ways to teach these students. Concerns about meeting the letter of the law shouldn’t keep districts from trying to meet every students’ needs, federal officials said; the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees education and special services to children with disabilities.