Though Washington students are expected to return to classrooms this fall, it won’t be a return to normal.
Walla Walla Public Schools will likely be teaching students in smaller groups when schools reopen. The district has narrowed down two choices for how this will look and sent out surveys asking parents which option they prefer.
Reducing the number of students in classrooms at a given time is necessary because new social distancing regulations will reduce the capacity of most schools by about half, the district said in an email blast to parents.
Both choices break students into two groups and have them return to school for part of the week. In one option, students would attend in-person classes for half a day — either in the morning or afternoon — and participate in distance learning the other half of the day.
A second option would divide students into two groups, with one group attending all-day classes Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other attending Tuesdays and Thursdays. Students would participate in distance learning on the weekdays they are not in school.
Under both plans, distance learning would occur Fridays for all students, though teachers would be available for face-to-face meetings as needed.
District Superintendent Wade Smith said guidelines put out earlier this month by Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal made a full return to classrooms impossible.
“The state has issued a mandate that all districts must follow,” Smith said. “This is a non-negotiable mandate. Students, while seated in a classroom, must be at least 6 feet apart from each other. And so, you are looking at a 36-square-foot zone around every student.”
Smith said that after teachers’ desks and other furnishings are accounted for, most classrooms will only fit about 15-20 students when using these guidelines. This is about half of the district’s class sizes.
Smith said these two choices are the most common options being considered by districts across the state. If other options were to present themselves, Smith said they would be considered.
One option that Smith said was considered, but ultimately rejected, would have had students attend in-person classes every other week. This was a non-starter for the district.
“We thought that would be highly problematic for families,” Smith said. “And it really goes against our core mission of maintaining consistent and regular contact between our students and their peers and between students and their teachers.”
Smith said he hopes to present a plan to the school board for consideration by the end of July. Once a decision is made, assigning students to schedules will be the next step.
Under both plans, he explained, parents would be able to request a schedule for their children. He noted, however, that while the schools will do what they can to accommodate these requests, the groups will have to be equal in size to fulfill the social distancing requirements. Smith also said family units will be kept together.
“If a parent has an elementary, a middle and a high school student and we are on that a.m./p.m. schedule, we would do our best to make sure all the students in that family would have the same slot,” Smith said. “That way an older brother could watch a younger sister (after or before) school.”
Smith also noted some parents may not be ready for their children to return to school due to health or other concerns. He said schools in the district will have a 100% distance learning plan to accommodate these students until a COVID-19 vaccine is available.