OLYMPIA — Face masks? Required. Six feet between desks? Required. Daily health screening? Required. As school districts begin to plan the logistics of holding in-person classes for the upcoming school year, this much is certain: it’s not going to be business as usual.
On June 11, a work group of more than 120 educators, administrators, students and community organizations — among others — released a 55-page report detailing the initial guidance school districts should follow as they plan for the 2020-21 school year. The work group was convened by the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in May.
In a letter to school districts, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said the guidance is grounded in science and data provided by the state Department of Health. Keeping students and staff safe and ensuring their well-being, he said, is “our highest priority in the reopening” of schools in Washington state.
“To be very clear, it is my expectation that schools will open this fall for in-person instruction,” Reykdal said.
The report includes guidance from the state Department of Health that districts should — or must — follow when developing its plans for the new school year. That guidance includes requiring all students and staff to wear face masks, rearranging desks and tables so students are at least six feet apart in the classroom and screening everyone for covid-19 symptoms at the beginning of each school day.
While the health department’s guidance is well-intended, Ocean Beach School District Superintendent Amy Huntley said enforcing some of the guidance, such as screening students and staff on a daily basis, may prove to be a challenge in terms of practicality.
The screenings require a temperature check of students and staff, as well as assurances from parents or guardians each school day that the student isn’t exhibiting any covid-19 symptoms, the student hasn’t received medication to reduce a fever before coming to school and the student hasn’t been in close contact with anyone who has tested positive for — or is suspected of having — covid-19.
“Some of the things that are in [the work group’s report] sound good on paper, but — and it’s not just OBSD, but all districts — you’re supposed to get some sort of [written assurance] from a parent every day that the kid hasn’t been sick and they don’t have a fever and so on,” said Huntley. “We can’t get them to bring back paperwork ever; Parents are busy, kids forget to give it to them, they forget to fill it out. It’s just not realistic to ask families to do that on a frequent basis.”
With regards to the daily temperature checks, Huntley used the scenario of a student who has been standing at a bus stop in the morning as they wait for their bus to pick them up and take them to school.
“If you’ve been standing out at the bus stop for 10 minutes, the thermal scan no-touch thermometers are going to read really low because your forehead is cool just from being outside for 10 minutes,” said Huntley. “Even the inner-ear [thermometers], if you’re sweating and you’re doing stuff, you could be 99 degrees one minute and then you relax for a while and you’re back down to 97 or 98 degrees. They’re not exact.”
Masks in class?
Huntley said she is also concerned about the requirement that students and staff wear a mask while in class. While it makes complete sense on paper, as studies show wearing a mask helps reduce the spread of covid-19, Huntley said the masks may hinder the learning process.
Teachers, she said, are concerned that the masks will muffle their voice when speaking to their class. Huntley said masks worn by teachers can also impact not what the students are learning, but how they are learning and processing what teachers are saying.
“Kids do look at mouths and expressions and whether the teacher is smiling or giving them a serious look. All of those things are so important to have kids interact with teachers,” said Huntley, an English teacher by practice.
To try and address that problem, the district is looking into whether clear masks could be an option, which would allow students to actually see the teacher’s mouth.
Another concern is how well younger students will take to the masks and the requirement to wear them all day. Huntley said she’s seen situations in other states where the mask requirement is lifted for younger children.
“A lot of states have done different things with the masks; some it’s more optional, some it’s not for little kids. Washington put it in as mandatory, and it’s for all kids,” said Huntley. “We’re trying to picture kindergarteners with masks, and how that looks.”
Socially distanced at school
With the requirement that students be spaced at least six feet apart while in class, Huntley said students probably won’t be able to attend school physically all five days of the week. The district’s schools and classrooms aren’t big enough to accommodate all students while keeping them safely distanced.
Families will be given the option to have their students’ learning be done completely online, whether it’s by choice or out of necessity because the student or a family member has fragile health and would be more at risk of experiencing the worst effects of the coronavirus. The district is working to create a fully online program that will stay in place beyond the covid-19 pandemic.
“It was something I was already working on, and this was just a chance to pull the trigger on it and have that available,” Huntley said.
The district is working to develop a strategy come September for what a split or rotating schedule will look like for in-person instruction. Presently, one idea being discussed is to have the same group of students attend classes in-person on Monday and Tuesday, and the other group of students to attend classes on Wednesday and Thursday, with Friday acting as a sort of prep day for teachers.
During on-site instruction days, an emphasis on content that is best suited for in-person learning will be prioritized, such as testing, science labs or other hands-on activities, like shop class. Some classes better suited for online-only instruction, such as English or social studies classes, may be conducted entirely remotely.
Students will use their school-assigned Google Chromebooks both at school and at home, as well as the chosen online platforms; Google Classroom for 3rd-12th grade students, and Seesaw for K-2nd grade students. Huntley said each student in the district will be assigned their own Chromebook, the first time OBSD has been able to do so.
These decisions were made in part by the feedback OBSD received from families that completed a recent survey sanctioned by the district. About 50% of students in the district were represented by a parent or guardian that completed the survey.
“A lot of what those surveys tell us are things like ‘We need our own Chromebook, we need evening office hours, we need the work to come in one platform from the school, rather than multiple platforms.’ Just a lot of those things,” Huntley said.
The Observer will have more coverage on the school district’s plans for the upcoming school year throughout the summer.