Washington Schools Are Carefully Planning to Welcome All Students Back to Buildings This Fall

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With about a month left to go in the school year, some Washington public school districts are signaling to parents that they intend to offer a fully in-person school year this fall for students in all grades.

While taking his oath of office on Monday, Seattle Public Schools' new interim superintendent, Brent Jones, alluded to "district plans for a full-time return to school this fall," and said that the city's schools "have an opportunity to come back stronger than before by centering the perspectives and needs of our students and families in our decision-making."

Tacoma, Everett, Bellevue, Lake Washington and Highline have also announced their intention to return to 100% in-person classes this fall. And a spokesman for the state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said it is the agency's "expectation that all students will be provided the opportunity to attend full-time in-person learning in the fall."

Still up in the air: Whether the state could require a COVID-19 vaccination for children who are old enough to receive it. Some schools are encouraging students to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible. Several state public and private universities recently announced that their fall plans include requiring students to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

Federal authorization for a Pfizer vaccine for adolescents ages 12-15 is expected as early as next week. A new national poll shows 3 in 10 parents say they would vaccinate their children against the coronavirus right away.

Districts say they expect to continue to practice pandemic health and safety protocols into the new school year, including distancing and mask requirements.

These protocols will also be in place for graduation ceremonies, some of which will be held in-person this spring, as well as during in-person summer programs.

"Of course, there are many details and benchmarks between that goal now and realizing full in-person instruction in the fall, so SPS will be working in that direction under the continued guidance of public health," Seattle schools' spokesperson Tim Robinson said.

Like many other districts, Seattle is teaching children on a hybrid schedule now. Elementary students go to in-person, half-day classes four days a week, and middle and high schools attend in person twice a week.

Each of the state's school districts has discretion over when and how to reopen this fall. Officials in the state superintendents office are encouraging schools and families to reach out to one another to determine how to best serve students. Some districts — which have cited a shortage of substitute teachers, school bus drivers, custodians, nurses and other staff — are planning to use federal emergency relief funds to ensure that they have adequate staffing for the 2021-22 school year.

In making these announcements, districts are emphasizing that that they can plan, but can't promise, to return to 100% in-person classes this fall, with the stipulation that schedules, staffing and backup plans are still being detailed. While schools hope to have more students sign up to be back in classrooms in September, districts are also fielding families' requests for their students to stay remote. To help keep kids in-district, some districts are rolling out new online academies and highlighting other in-district online education programs to address retention concerns.

In announcing plans on Friday to return to a more typical, fully in-person school year this fall, Highline district officials said families who choose not to send their students for in-person school due to health concerns will be able to select a remote learning option.

"We needed to give families some idea of what fall looks like so they know what to expect," said Highline Public Schools Chief Communications Officer Catherine Carbone Rogers.

The district has a current enrollment of about 17,500 students, with about 60 percent still attending classes remotely, despite having an in-person option.

Highline elementary students choosing remote instruction for the 2021-22 school year will be assigned to an online classroom that could include students and a teacher from a school that's not their home school. Middle and high school students applying for remote instruction are encouraged to enroll in the new Highline Virtual Academy. Unlike the current remote and hybrid learning models, this will be a self-paced program. The academy will offer dual language, Advanced Placement, and English language learner programs, as well as special education services.

Carbone Rogers said that while it may seem early for Highline to be asking families to decide whether to enroll their students for in-person classes this fall, the district needs a head count to assign staff and ensure that there is enough capacity in the school classrooms to accommodate students. The district will continue to maintain the three-foot classroom spacing recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health.

"We can't wait until August to move pieces around," she said.

Everett Public Schools announced its intention to start the 2021-22 school year fully in-person as part of a survey emailed to parents on April 28. "We are interested in knowing if your experience with remote learning this year has caused you to consider other options for fall 2021," the survey read.

The district currently enrolls 20,000 students, with about 51% attending in-person or hybrid and 49% taking fully remote classes. This fall, it will continue to offer its OnlineHS option for secondary students. The virtual high school program has been running since 2001.

Kathy Reeves, director of communications for Everett schools, said the district is discussing the terms and conditions of the upcoming school year with union representatives. The district is also surveying families through Sunday about what students need to be successful for bridging to the next grade level.

The results of those surveys will be reviewed by district leaders in the coming weeks, and schools are encouraging families to continue checking school websites for updates, as well as opportunities to become involved in the fall planning process.

"We want families to have all the information that they can possibly have to make a selection, and we also have a process for if something changes for them," Highline's Carbone Rogers said.

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