1.2 million students won’t return to classrooms anytime soon

OLYMPIA — Washington students will not return to classrooms this school year, and maybe longer, leaving teachers with the daunting challenge of educating about 1.2 million elementary and secondary students through distance learning.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday extended the current closure of public, private and charter schools through June 19 and warned campuses could possibly be shuttered through the summer and into the start of next school year.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal joined Inslee for the announcement.

“These are difficult times, and this is a tough day here in Washington state,” Reykdal said.

School campuses have endured an unprecedented shutdown statewide since March 17 under an earlier Inslee directive. Districts had been eyeing a potential reopening on April 27.

But their hopes evaporated last week when Inslee extended the statewide stay-at-home order to May 4 in response to the pandemic that has sickened thousands and claimed hundreds of lives.

“This is part and parcel of those efforts to flatten the ‘curve’ as it goes up but (also) to reduce the number of deaths as it goes down,” Inslee said, referring to the effort to reduce infections under an ongoing stay-home order. The increase in new coronavirus cases is expected to level off and decline in coming weeks, but continued social distancing is necessary to prevent a relapse, health officials have said.

“Our fatalities are still going up,” Inslee warned. “We have not reached the peak of this pandemic.”

As of Sunday, when the latest statewide numbers were released, 7,984 people in Washington had tested positive for COVID-19, and 338 of them had died since the outbreak began in January, according to the state Department of Health.

Monday’s decision applies to all schools — public, private and charter.

It continues to prohibit in-person classes and recreation on school grounds but does not ban school-sponsored child care, nutrition programs and other social services, which districts have been providing in various ways.

Schools are encouraged to continue providing distance learning.

But the order allows in-person and on-site educational services deemed essential and necessary under state or federal law if social distancing practices and proper hygiene are followed at all times.

This could enable some tutoring support and one-on-one instruction with high school seniors to help them finish projects required for graduation. Or it might comply with requisites of Individualized Education Programs.

While officials hope schools can resume normal operations in the fall, Reykdal said, he couldn’t promise that. Meantime, he said “the way of the future” is expanded distance learning online.

Reykdal, in a You Tube video posted Friday, foreshadowed a lengthy closure of classrooms.

“I don’t know if we’re coming back to school this year,” he said. “I think you should expect to be in this distance learning model for quite a long time.”

Inslee informed superintendents of the decision in a conference call Monday. Reykdal also took part.

While districts have been providing meals and child care to students since the closure, they did not restart academic instruction until last week.

Reykdal directed all public school districts to have an online learning plan in place by March 30.

Herald writer Joey Thompson contributed to this story. Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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