State superintendent: Expect schools to be open in fall

Schools will not look quite the same, Washington state’s public school leader said today, but he expects students and staff back in classrooms come this fall.

Chris Reykdal, Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in a press conference on June 11 that school districts should plan on having in-person classroom instruction for the 2020-2021 school year.

Students and staff should expect to wear protective masks or shields, maintain social distancing and maintain appropriate hygiene procedures.

“We are opening this fall, provided it is safe,” Reykdal said.

“First and foremost, we have to keep our students and our staff safe.”

A statewide task force of more than 120 members — including of administrators, staff, students community members and others — studied the options of how school districts can provide education to the more than 1.1 million students who have since mid-March been studying and receiving instruction from home.

Their recommendation, Reykdal said, is that in-person instruction is possible with enough precautions in place — including masks (or shields) for each student and staff member to help prevent the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

“The science is very clear this is a disease … of droplets; so there is challenge in this for all of us,” he said.

“There are students who cannot (wear masks),” he said, so districts will have to make accommodations and the masks/shields themselves for both students and staff regarding protective wear.

The requirement for face coverings, Reykdal said, comes from recommendations from the Washington State Department of Health, and that though there are relatively few COVID-19 fatalities among younger people this practice reduces the number of youths who could go home and infect parents and grandparents.

“The science is telling us this is a real possibility,” he said.

Some students and staff may not feel comfortable with in-person instruction so school districts will have to offer options for distance learning, Reykdal said. But those plans should come with some coordination, he said.

“It is not reasonable for a high school student to have five teachers with five different teaching platforms,” he said.

The state superintendent praised the teachers and other school staff for carrying on with remote learning after schools shut down in mid-March to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“This was heroic and nearly impossible,” Reykdal said.

Room to teach

Classroom teachers would need to maintain physical distancing for themselves and students of at least 6 feet, have procedures in place to maintain healthy standards — including some health screening protocols — and have a plan for how to modify their educational offerings if a COVID-19 outbreak occurs.

Staff with each school district in the state, he said, will be using the summer months to prepare those procedures and plans.

While some counties in Washington state have relatively low coronavirus numbers and are in Phase 2 or 3 of the state’s “Safe Start” plan, other counties in Phase 1 or modified versions of Phase 1, meaning they could have more restrictions in their school operations, Reykdal said.

Some districts may have challenges with the physical distancing in classrooms, so they may have to adapt by, for example, hosting classes with large student numbers in gymnasiums, he said.

“Districts are going to have to be remarkably creative,” Reykdal said. “We’re going to have teachers in rooms with tape-measurers.”

School districts will be required to file their educational plans with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OPSI) at least two weeks prior to reopening schools — commonly the week following Labor Day — but state officials will not be touring the state for on-site checks.

“We are not going to do quality control; we don’t have the resources for that,” Reykdal said.

Grades, requirements

School districts will be expected to fulfill the state-mandated average of 1,027 instructional hours over 180 school days, Reykdal said.

“Our intent is that we will fully meet those obligations next year,” he said.

The state superintendent said that while federally-required testing was suspended for the 2019-2020, federal officials have not waived that requirement for the 2020-2021 school year.

“We would like to see those waived once again,” Reykdal said. “We’ve got to get away from this test obsession.”

Most school districts modified their grading systems to eliminate any failing grade for students in the 2019-2020 school year, as students were moved from in-person classroom instruction to remote learning situations. The change, Reykdal said, allows school leaders time to consider how to reopen school but also how to create more opportunities for their students.

“There is a chance to reform our system,” he said.

School districts could, for example, bring back prior to the 2020-20221 school year those students who were struggling at the end of the 2019-2020 school year in what state educators call “jump starts,” he said.

On the bus

Health officials indicate students would be safe to use buses to get to school (with frequent cleaning, Plexiglas, face masks for drivers and other precautions), but Reykdal said he would encourage parents to drive their students if they can and for school district to increase the territory in which they require students to walk to school.


Reykdal said his staff is working with the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) about the possibility of hold high school and middle school sports when classes resumes in the fall, but that the state does not have guidance on that yet.

Some sports, whose physical distancing is easier to maintain, might be easier to bring back than others, eh said.

“We expect fall sports to (be open), but that is not part of this guidance,” Reykdal said Thursday.