Washington State School Districts Have 17 Days to Submit School Reopening Plans

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Hours after a new state law passed on Wednesday, Washington superintendent of public instruction Chris Reykdal told school districts that if they want their new federal COVID-19 relief money, they need to update and submit their reopening plans by March 1.

Their "academic and student well-being recovery plans," meant to help students recoup the school-based instruction they missed, will be due June 1. According to guidance Reykdal sent district leaders, these plans must at least "address learning loss among students."

Gov. Jay Inslee hasn't yet signed House Bill 1368, which is mostly funded by federal aid from relief packages approved by Congress and about $440 million from state budget reserves. A spokesperson from his office said early Wednesday that the Legislature hadn't yet formally sent it his way, but that he does plan to sign it next week.

The law itself includes the March and June deadlines. It does not say anything about conditioning the money on the plans, but it doesn't prohibit doing so, either. "There's nothing in there that conditions it, and there's nothing in there that prevents him from conditioning it," said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who helped write the legislation. The law does not give Inslee and Reykdal the authority to require that schools reopen; those are district decisions.

Some officials are considering allocating additional state funds to help school districts bolster students' academics after a year when they had less time with their teachers.

Rolfes said her goal is to find a way to hold districts harmless, to prevent this year's enrollment dips from wreaking havoc on school budgets and triggering layoffs. Beyond that, she said, she wants to cover the cost of academic remediation. One idea is to add a week to the school year, which, she said, would cost $300 million. She wants to know what districts are planning to do.

"Districts are going to need to assess each student. Some are going to be fine. Others aren't going to be," she said. "The sooner you get them in (to classrooms), the faster you can assess them and the less learning loss there will be."

In January, The Seattle Times reported on the limited information school districts were disseminating on student performance amid the pandemic. "There's a general feeling that some kids are missing from the school system entirely," Rolfes said. "Other kids are doing okay. There's not one story."

As of now, districts must proceed with their standardized testing plans, and "address student needs due to the school building closures and extended time in remote learning" in their recovery plans, the guidance states. Those plans will include data on districts' tests, learning gaps, supports for students who need extra help and additional instruction time for those who need to catch up.

The state is doubling down on its data collection, which has been limited. In the guidance, Reykdal said districts will be required to complete weekly surveys on how they're teaching students. Previously, the survey was voluntary, and a number of districts didn't complete it. Reykdal warned districts that the OSPI website will make it clear "which districts are out of compliance," and that failure to complete it "may result in a loss of state or federal funds."

Schools can only access their portion of $668 million in new federal money if they submit — and Reykdal's office approves — their reopening plans.

Districts can use that money for a broad range of expenditures, including satisfying federal education laws, coordinating COVID-19 preparedness and getting resources to principals. They can also use it for educational technology, mental health services, summer learning opportunities and exams. They can't use it for bonuses or merit pay, unless that pay is specifically related to COVID-19 closures. Districts also can't use the funds to subsidize executive salaries or union-related costs.

When districts submit their opening plans, they will be asked to use a specific state template that asks questions about health and safety practices, including that each school has a COVID-19 site supervisor who will monitor adherence to those practices. Districts will need to state that "all students are trained in a developmentally appropriate way and in the language they best understand" about COVID-19 prevention by the time they return.

Districts will have to tell the state how they track COVID-19 outbreaks. They'll also need to say how they communicate with families and on which topics they've solicited feedback, and how they follow up on that feedback.

The order for the reopening plans comes almost one year after the state shut down schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, most students have been learning remotely. As of earlier this month, about 30% of students statewide were receiving any in-person instruction, according to state data.

But not everyone wants to go back. Across the country, in school districts that have reopened, white families are overrepresented among those who feel ready to return to school buildings. The reasons vary, but some families of color have said they distrust their school system's safety plans — after experiencing the brunt of COVID-19 deaths — and ability to curb racism.

In January, a Seattle Public Schools survey found that of families with kids in pre-K through first grades, 46.8% preferred in-person learning. Over half of white families wanted to return — but just one-third of Black, Asian and Pacific Islander families said they did. (12.3% of families did not return the survey.)

In December, Reykdal and Inslee made the state's recommended disease metrics for school reopening significantly less stringent. The new benchmarks were not legally binding, but they marked a dramatic shift: Ending broad recommendations for keeping students mostly remote, even when coronavirus transmission rates are high.

The decision was not based on a robust log of cases in local schools that pointed toward safety, but rather on limited scientific data, a handful of districts' experiences with reopening and a drive to get students back in class for academic and mental health reasons.

Since that decision, more districts, like Bellevue and Tacoma, have begun their return to school buildings.

Previous guidance urged districts to prioritize remote instruction if their county's infection rate was above 75 cases per 100,000. The new standards told schools to reopen fully if there were fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 residents; for those with over 350 cases per 100,000 residents, elementary school students could go back in groups of 15 or fewer. This guidance aligns with federal Centers for Disease Control recommendations.

Rolfes said legislators believe that districts already have the information the state is asking to be included in reopening plans. "The legislation does not say schools must reopen," she said. "It said, the reopening plans must be submitted. Our belief is ... most districts have reopening plans."

Representatives of the state teachers union said they were glad to see more money heading to schools. "We are relieved that these funds will target our lower-income area schools, where families are being disproportionately impacted by COVID," the Washington Education Association said in a statement about the money, which federal law dictates will be allocated through the Title I formula, a calculation that prioritizes high-poverty schools. "We will continue advocating for the additional funds necessary to meet safety requirements and provide sufficient mental, physical, social, and emotional supports."

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