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Local schools pivot to online learning under reversed state guidance

Local schools pivot to online learning under reversed state guidance

Longview and Kelso school districts plan to comply with new state instructions to offer some form of online education by Monday, though officials say their offerings will likely evolve over time.

Longview district spokesman Rick Parrish said “there aren’t specific instructions” in a situation like this, but the district will use resources it has already developed and perhaps new methods in the future as well.

“Our goal with this is to continue the learning for the kids and this is kind of unprecedented, unchartered territory,” Parrish said. “The whole remote learning process is going to evolve over time.”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction told school districts they should not use online learning if they could not ensure equal access, including for students with special education plans or without laptops. OSPI this week reversed that guidance, telling schools to start offering some sort of distance learning by Monday.

“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 OSPI website says. “The situation in our state has drastically evolved since that time.”

The main change was Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 13 decision to close all Washington schools until at least April 27. Before that, most schools could continue to operate at their own discretion.

In Longview, the district will start by adding structured weekly learning schedules to the education resource page on its website. The schedules will tie in with the available online resources, according to a letter to parents from Superintendent Dan Zorn.

After spring break, the district will launch a more robust remote learning program on April 15. Teachers will be reaching out to families with more details closer to the start date, but instruction will include both paper packets and digital lessons.

“We are committed to educating our students during the school closure, while recognizing that the crisis continues to evolve,” Zorn said in the letter. “It could affect school employees and the community in ways that we cannot anticipate fully, so we will remain flexible with our plans.”

Families who do not have a laptop at home can check out a Chromebook at St. Helens, Kessler, Northlake, Columbia Heights or Mint Valley elementaries or Monticello Middle School from noon to 12:30 p.m. this Friday and Monday.

Parrish said that the district already owns the laptops, and he does not anticipate the new online program will be a significant cost for the district.

For families needing internet access, Xfinity has made some WiFi Hotspots free. To find a hotspot, go to https://wifi.xfinity.com. Families can also access WiFi from areas near schools by using the LPS-BYOD WiFi network, the letter said.

While the district will not take attendance, Parrish said the district plans to work closely with parents, including those with students on individualized education plans. All students will use the same set of online resources, including phone calls and video meetings with teachers.

“Remote learning for all our kids is going to be a challenge, and we plan to serve all our kids using similar means,” Parrish said.

OSPI says that instead of the traditional compliance measures, going forward it will ground its guidance in “compassion, communication and common sense.”

It also noted that the U.S. Department of Education stated that equity barriers do not prevent schools from offering educational programs, because “these exceptional circumstances may affect how all educational and related services and supports are provided.”

Kelso School District staff have been “working diligently” on an online learning plan, according to Spokeswoman Michele Nerland.

The district’s teaching and learning team developed a four-stage plan Tuesday, and the plan is being reviewed with teams from each school level before it’s shared with the public. Kelso families can also go to https://wifi.xfinity.com to find a free hotspot near them.

According to OSPI, districts have an obligation to not only students, but society as well.

“Our schools are the backbone of our democracy and the structures, routines and ongoing learning opportunities will create calm connections our families need at this critical time in our state,” OSPI website said.

For now, that looks like loose guidelines and room for districts to be flexible. OSPI suggests using everything from printed learning materials and phone contact to email and technology-based virtual instruction to meet diverse student needs.

Parrish said for classes like chemistry or other hands-on learning, the district will “try to be creative and come up with lessons plans that utilize things readily available in households.”

OSPI said that in this time, the way schools work will “look different.”

“It will be possible to serve students meaningfully because of the expertise of school and district personnel and their relationships with the communities they serve,” the website says.

Parrish said the district has been working closely with union partners to develop its plan, even as the vast majority of district staff work remotely for safety.

“It’s going to be a challenge, no question,” Parrish said. “But from a district standpoint our goal is to help our kids continue to learn. The mission of Longview Public Schools hasn’t changed. We just have to be more creative and flexible on how we do that.”

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