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Member insights on schools reopening - Part 1

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WEA conducted several focus groups with members across the state about reopening schools this fall. With guidelines provided by the Office of the Superintendant of Public Instruction and the Department of Health, school districts should consider the experience, expertise and observations of those working within the system. Here is some of what we learned from our members.

Jennifer DePrey
Jennifer DePrey, Oak Harbor EA, eighth grade counselor

Technology access isn't equal for all our families. Many in rural areas can't get reliable internet, and more so, many families simply can't afford it. As it becomes clear that some form of distance learning will be with us for some time, it also becomes clear that the internet is a utility that all of our families need easy access to in order to access their public education. We should be pushing to have the internet considered a utility, to help make that access a reality for families that aren't able to get that service now.

Stress and anxiety levels are very high with many of our students right now. It's important to know that this pandemic is a community level trauma event. So many of our kids are facing something hard right now. Even in the best case scenario, this pandemic is challenging students' sense of security on multiple levels.

We know that students who don't have a sense of security and safety, both physically and emotionally, can't learn well. We also know that adverse childhood experiences further impact the ability to learn, grow, and thrive. While this pandemic may not be an Adverse Childhood Experience for all of our students, it is for many of them, and for others it magnifies the effect of adverse childhood experiences like poverty and abuse.

When we return in the fall, we all need to be ready to address our students' needs in a way that is trauma-informed. Every student and every staff member is being affected somehow. Training on trauma informed response is going to be imperative for not just school counselors and other specialists, but for every staff member in our schools.

JessicaBairey (2)
Jessica Bairey, Central Kitsap EA, elementary teacher

Uncertainty has been a challenge over the past few months. As circumstances developed, changes were occurring rapidly and we found ourselves trying to adapt as quickly as possible. What became immediately apparent was the inequities our students and families face, especially without schools as a community resource. Currently, we are not meeting the needs of our students and their families.

One of the greatest inequities is access to technology. Even in districts with one-to-one device availability, our students are still lacking internet access. Furthermore, our families are not prepared for school at home. In a classroom of nineteen children, I have kids attending childcare Monday through Friday, kids trying to share one Chromebook with multiple siblings, families experiencing recent military deployment, and only children with a stay-at-home parent. How do we handle that? How can we meet these needs remotely?

As we prepare for the upcoming year, we need to keep our children and their families at the forefront of our plans. We need to develop clear expectations that are consistent across the state. What IS required and what is not? How can we make accountability equitable?  Our school year will be different; however, our passion and commitment remains the same.

Juli Hollenbeck (2)
Juli M. Hollenbeck, Speech-Language Pathologist, Bonney Lake

I am the SLP for Bonney Lake High School. All of the students on my caseload have struggled with the online format. Students with IEPs have accommodations in their IEPs in addition to specific goals necessary for their success academically. Their grades are calculated from their effort but accommodations and daily support are crucial. Accommodations for support cannot be followed as intended through worksheets and Zoom meetings. Many of them are not readers or barely readers and have inconsistent, if any, support from home. Several of them also have IEP goals for advocating for themselves. This need for teacher and paraeducator support throughout their day cannot be met in the online format. I have several that have Fs and many missed assignments. Typically, in school they are assisted with assignments and study guides through paraeducator and learning strategies class time. The organization of six classes and juggling those assignments is difficult face to face. They will have to take an incomplete because the usual teacher/para support that they get from school is not available to them.

In the Fall they will just continue to get further behind unless educators are given the time to address our most academically fragile population. Traditional grades are not used for our more self-contained lower Developmental Learning Class students. Those functioning with IEPs in general education classes are those that I don't feel have the opportunity to be successful online.  In general education most learners are independent and can be successful on a Chromebook, especially with teachers offering office hours and contact through email. The population with Specific Learning Disabilities and Intellectual Disabilities are not benefitting from online learning that I have seen. The value of face to face support for them to obtain the necessary credits to graduate has never been more apparent.

More small group opportunities with skilled staff for assisting the students with special needs is necessary to help repair the loss of academics these last months. My idea to offer more time for staff with this population under the existing budget is to have the class of 2021, that only needs 22 credits to graduate, have the opportunity to only take the courses they need. Having all of those rising seniors that are capable of independent learning only on campus 3-4 hours will free up time for teachers to address more specific needs of those with incompletes. Traditional high school will have to change going forward. 

NeenaFouts (2)
Neena Fouts, Kennewick EA, 6th/7th Grade Teacher at Highlands Middle School

OSPI and district officials need to know that setting up a grading system is imperative to ensure the engagement and learning of our students. We have to be able to be allowed to give grades. The moment students knew they could not fail, many tuned out and decided for whatever reason not to participate and when students do participate they do not put their best foot forward because they know they won’t fail. Some students are having to babysit their siblings. We have parents who are working and are unable/do not monitor their child’s involvement with online learning. Participation continues to decline.

Another thing to consider is equity. Do students have access to technology, such as; reliable internet, having Chromebooks, etc. We have students who receive special services, English Language Learners, and students who do not qualify for either that are struggling. Are we successfully meeting their needs? This has been an incredible and overwhelming undertaking for all.  As a teacher, I have been stretched to the limit in this crash course of learning how to teach solely online. I am deeply worried about my students’ emotional, social, and educational well-being.

When making decisions about what the next school year looks like, I think it would behoove the powers that be to listen to the people who are in the trenches trying to make this work. We teachers should have input, be part of the decision making process. Or, at least take our concerns and suggestions into consideration. I realize this will not be an easy endeavor. But, now is the time to work together to what is best for our students and for our teachers/staff.

Mindy Haas-sq (2)
Mindy Haas, SPED/EBD Teacher, Monroe EA

I appreciate all the work that is going into reopening schools safely. I also realize that, even after the state and districts agree on “The Plan,” some parents are likely to decide that open classrooms are not yet safe with the pandemic still unfolding. Parents who keep their children home for safety are likely to expect, or even demand, that distance-learning services continue.

Does that mean staff will soon be expected to teach two tracks for each class? One set of lessons for students at school, and separate online lessons and resources for those who stay at home?

Safety isn’t the only hurdle. It may be harder to get some students back to school because they like the daytime jobs they now hold — or their families may now depend on that income because parents’ jobs have also been impacted. Even if the state and school spell out requirements for PPE and social distancing, some kids will ignore the guidelines out of a lack of maturity, concern or self-control — and that will put the health protections at risk for students and staff who are trying to be cautious and safe. Or if the state decides to keep students home while parents are returning to work, students may lack the oversight and help essential for completing their online studies.

Even with the best-laid plans, I am concerned that there is no guarantee that all parents will buy in — and it’s a fair guess that a substantial number won’t.

Ginger Andrews (2)
Ginger Andrews, 5th grade teacher

Students need time, social-emotional support

When school starts back up in the fall, I’m worried that districts are already planning to implement trauma-insensitive practices and policies. For example, that immediately upon reentry students will be faced with standardized tests, despite the fact that such an experience will be anxiety-producing for many and triggering for our most marginalized students.  We know that the trauma-responsive approach would be to give kids time to get back, to reacquaint themselves with school and each other. We need time to build community, for me to know my kids, and them to develop a sense of safety, calm, and confidence before asking young children to engage in a full academic workload.

When they come back, they won’t have been in school with each other for six months. In that time, they will have experienced a global pandemic, cooped up at home. They may have had family illness or loss. Many will have parents who lost their jobs and are struggling to get by. They will have witnessed the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests for racial justice. Those who were hurting before the pandemic will still be hurting, and many more will be in a harder place. This has not been a usual time, so return to school can’t be business as usual.

Our students will need social emotional support, not rigid schedules, pacing guides and testing. They need time to develop supportive, trusting relationships with the adults at school. And we will need more adults available who can tend to those emotional needs after an extraordinary time in history. We need to keep that in mind as we all transition back to whatever the school model will be this fall.

Diana Oriz (2)
Diana Ortiz, Winlock Elementary Teacher

Since the school closure, I have tried to stay in close contact with all of my students' families.  I have tried to be an advocate for parents and students alike. The majority of my students and their families are Spanish speakers, and many of the parents are immigrants to the U.S. and have not learned to speak English. Those parents who are non-English speakers are really finding the technology and language barrier intimidating.  A few of my parents feel that they are not equipped to teach their children at home and would rather that I communicate directly with their children about assignments and participation expectations. However, I am bilingual and some of my parents have taken on this challenge and readily reach out to me for assistance when needed. 

Some students and families are difficult or even impossible to track down as they have moved or are working elsewhere due to the financial hardships the COVID-19 situation has caused. These are the students and families that concern me the most! I have high school students who have had to get essential jobs to help their families survive this difficult time. They are more concerned with basic survival right now than they are with logging in to an online class and completing assignments. I will continue to attempt contact with these families and to support them in the best way possible during this difficult time.

Follow us on instagram, @wa_education, to see more member opinions on schools reopening.

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