New guidance from Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is urging state K-12 schools to offer continuous education throughout statewide closures put in place by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

Previously, most Washington schools in the region, including the Pullman School District, were focused on delivering voluntary “enrichment opportunities” to students that would shore up core curriculum but would not be considered new material or formal instruction. However new guidelines from the state are now encouraging schools to offer true distance learning opportunities intended to take the place of instructional days in school.

“Basically it’s kind of shifting from providing optional activities and resources to delivering some learning as best as you can,” Pullman Superintendent Bob Maxwell said. “Now it’s shifting to focusing on delivering instruction and teaching to the most critical standards.”

On Sunday, OSPI told school leaders across the state that education and new learning must continue despite the school closures. In an update posted to its website, the agency said remote instruction could take the form of phone contact, email, technology-based virtual instruction as well as through online tools — or it could be a combination of these strategies. The update said guidance from OSPI even earlier this month, failed to account for the gravity of circumstances currently facing Washington schools.

“In late February and early March, we set a high bar for districts who wanted to continue distance learning if their school buildings were to close,” the update read. “The situation in our state has drastically evolved since that time.”

Some school leaders point out this is indicative of how these guidelines change rapidly by the day, and sometimes by the hour.

“The shifting sands here with the state are, we were told very clearly when we talked last week, ‘this is an enrichment only, this is not formal instruction and assignments,’” said Colton Superintendent Paul Clark.

The new guidelines also stipulate that districts should continue to build their capacity to provide “equitable services” during school closures.

Clark said this concept of equitability was part of the reason districts were preparing to deliver enrichment in place of new learning in the first place. He said while students receiving more generalized instruction may be relatively well prepared to continue their education online, it may not be possible to deliver the same opportunity for growth to students that require more specialized instruction as quickly.

Clark used a metaphor to draw the distinction between “equal” and “equitable.” He said if a student with asthma is told they have to race a student without asthma and that neither runner may use an inhaler during this race — that may be equal but it’s not very equitable. Equitability would be allowing the student with asthma to use their inhaler so they would have a chance of performing at near the same level as other students without risking their health.

He said this also applies to equitability in learning opportunities. If one portion of the student body is able to make progress in their learning, then districts need to make sure that all students at all levels also have access to making similar progress in their own learning.

This interpretation of federal and state mandates requiring equitability in education along with advisement from OSPI was what initially kept some Washington schools from offering new learning during the closure. However the new guidelines state “OSPI expects educational services for all students will begin by Monday, March 30.”

Maxwell said these quickly shifting guidelines are just one of the challenges facing districts trying to radically transform all of their myriad services in a short amount of time. He said these difficulties are compounded by the fact that he and his staff cannot strategize face to face but must hold meetings remotely as well.

“We’re moving as quickly as we can, and we’re excited to do so but we do definitely … appreciate our community’s patience and understanding as we navigate this,” Maxwell said. “It is unprecedented and just all the complexities of running school is like running a small city — there’s transportation and food service and maintenance and all kinds of things that come into play.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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