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Education in Washington is a new frontier, educators new pioneers

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Walla Walla High School students moved between morning classes this past February. Starting today, their classrooms become electronic as Washington state officials grapple with COVID-19 coronavirus.

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As the COVID-19 virus pandemic creates new frontiers around the world, educators are arguably among the first wave of pioneers in preparing to keep students engaged and learning while schools are closed.

That’s especially true in Washington state, where K-12 schools are closed for at least six weeks and colleges have gone to mostly online learning for the duration.

In the Walla Walla Valley, superintendents and principals have begun hammering out solid plans, despite the fluidity of the situation.

Ensuring students stay on track will be “an unprecedented” work in progress, peppered with stops and starts and other challenges, but it will be historic, said Wade Smith, superintendent of Walla Walla Public Schools.

Statewide student assessment testing has been canceled for the year but, so far, standards for everything else is in flux throughout districts, Smith said.

“Our Walla Walla faculty and staff did not feel comfortable sitting around and waiting, leaving vulnerable kids and families in limbo,” he said this morning.

“We rolled up our sleeves, worked around the clock, and came together with a solution that provides educational access while maintaining the critical connection between students, parents, and teachers.”

That means today the Walla Walla district is rolling out a distance learning program for preschool through high school students for the six-week closure and beyond, if necessary.

The concept, which Smith began engineering as soon as he realized what might be coming with the surge of the pandemic elsewhere, is designed to make sure kids continue to learn at grade level, the ability to earn credits and provide avenues for high school seniors to reach graduation.

Everyone associated with the district believes in the mission and has committed to it, Smith said this morning.

Distance learning begins Monday. This week teachers and others are building and organizing the delivery model, said spokesman Mark Higgins.

Preschool and elementary school children will have weekly learning materials created by their homeroom teacher and specialists, Higgins said.

Those paper-and-pencil packets will be picked up at each child’s school Monday, 7:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.

Middle- and high-school students will get daily instructions from teachers via online, in a Google Classroom platform.

The district will provide Chromebooks and a Verizon hotspot if their house lacks internet access, Higgins said.

Dayton School Superintendent Doug Johnson said his staff is working on what district office hours will be after this week, and parent-teacher conferences will be over the phone.

Dayton students attending Running Start at Walla Walla Community College will be getting emailed instructions regarding classes, as will students enrolled in Dayton’s “College in the High School” program, Johnson said in a letter to families.

This week his staff will learn more about the state’s expectations around student learning and how Dayton can respond, he said.

Because it will take time to develop a curriculum for this situation Johnson said that will be delivered later this month or in April.

He’s aware many families in the district lack internet access or home computers, and administrators are looking at how to address that, Johnson said Monday.

“At this time the best guidance we can provide is to have all children engaged in reading and writing activities appropriate to their age, he said, listing such ideas as writing letters, reading newspapers and books, and sharing information learned with their family.

While state education officials have said Dayton High School’s June 6 graduation will be honored, seniors need to prepare to “hit the ground running” when school resumes, Johnson said.

At Rogers Adventist School, online and hands-on learning will keep the academic year on schedule, Principal Holley Bryant told parents Monday.

Teachers at the K-8 private school have pledged to a high level of communication with families and academics, Bryant said.

Going forward, Rogers will provide students with a combination of online games, resources and activities, along with hard copy lessons, books, packets and more activities.

Teachers will publish their office hours on the school’s website and parents can schedule an individual tutoring session with their child’s teacher for 30 minutes each week.

School staff, including counselor Tricia Lofthouse, are available for consult, Bryant said, adding the school office will be staffed 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday.

In a letter to families, Dixie School District Superintendent Jacob Bang made it clear the extended school closure is not like an extended spring break.

Most Dixie students will be getting a sack lunch delivered by bus once a day, Bang said.

With that process, fresh work will be brought to students and finished work returned to teachers.

Specifics are still being worked out, Bang said. “Everything is fluid.”

Like other schools in Washington, Walla Walla Catholic Schools closed to in-school instruction today, with the expectation of reopening April 27.

Preschool at Assumption School is remaining open and additional cleaning measures being taken there, spokeswoman Melissa Theissen said.

Teachers are meeting today and Wednesday to determine how best to serve students the remainder of the semester, Theissen said.

WWCS asked parents to fill out a food service survey and students took work home Monday. The private school system has listed several sources of information and help on its website.

Reactions to a prolonged school closure varied across every grade level, but by Monday afternoon students seemed to realize they were not going to see their friends or teachers for many weeks, Theissen said, adding the outgoing message from staff is the WWCS family is in this together.

There’s no question everything is currently different in education, but the Walla Walla community has borne out adversity before, Smith said.

“When we look back, we are going to be really proud of our teachers. We’re going to do everything we can.”

There is a bright spot on this pandemic horizon, he added.

“This is really going to create a level of communication that hasn’t been needed prior to this.”

Teachers and learning specialists will be writing to and talking with parents and students much more frequently, and developing creative ways to communicate with, he said.

For some students, that communication will be the most important part of their day, Smith said.

It’s very likely no parts of the plan will be perfect in the beginning, he added.

“There will be frustration, there will be glitches ... But when you look back and say ‘Was it worth the effort?’ It absolutely is.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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