Reflections on reopening schools and keeping our community safe

A Message from Superintendent Greg Baker

Dear students, staff, families and community,

It’s Wednesday morning, and I am reflecting on the big question: what is the best way forward to get back to the work of educating students? We want to be in a place where teachers and students are engaging with each other, in-person learning is occurring, athletics and activities are in full swing and folks are happy and healthy.

I receive emails daily from staff and families about how we should move forward. Some are advocating for us to open up, and they cite research showing how unlikely it is for children to get the virus, and how school closures will impact our families. Others advocate for just the opposite and cite research that children can spread and catch the virus; they remind me that we need to think not just of the health of our children but of all the adults who are involved with schools.

We have been watching as more and more school districts across the country and now around our state announce they’re starting their school year online. This week I anticipate more districts will announce similar plans. Here is a video our state superintendent released at the end of last week discussing fall reopening amid the pandemic.

When I’m in a predicament, and I do not yet know the answer, I find the best I can do is to just be honest with what I’m thinking at that moment in time. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts:

  • We want our schools to open in the fall with students and staff at school.
  • Each passing day, it seems less likely that will happen, at least for the majority of students.
  • Keeping our students, staff and families safe and healthy is a top priority.
  • We continue to plan for different scenarios including an option for families who know they will want a fully online option all year. We plan on having that opportunity available.
  • As we think about whether learning occurs fully online or a mix of online and in-person, we all need to be ready to shift as conditions change. We are considering a model that would allow us to have different stages and criteria. One stage could allow a small group of students back for in-person instruction, for example, students who receive special services, while most students receive online instruction. The next stage would prioritize getting our youngest learners back into our school buildings, then a stage where nearly all students can come back two days per week and be online the rest of the time. The last stage would include operations as normal, and we are all back together in person.

As I shared a couple weeks ago, we have hundreds of staff members working tirelessly on these different models, figuring out how to ensure our students’ experience next year is better than last spring, whether learning occurs fully online or via a hybrid model. One example is more live interactions between students and staff whether via video or in-person small groups. Thank you to each of these folks for all their work.

Many work teams are wrapping up their work, and we expect to announce our updated plans next week. We are also working closely with our labor partners, and we’re grateful for their participation and feedback and our strong relationships.

For context, I had a Zoom call yesterday with the Washington State Department of Health and our state superintendent. Health officials say they are working on new guidance to help school districts across our state determine next steps, and they ask that we remain patient, but as of today, there is no clarity from the governor’s office, state superintendent’s office, or state or regional health department on what the right answer is. Thus districts are trying to figure out what to share out with their communities regarding next year. All of us want children back in school, but no one wants to be the cause for one of our students or staff members to get sick or worse. It’s brutally challenging.

Thank you for your care, patience and understanding.  I look forward to sharing more information with you next week.

Greg Baker