What Inland Northwest schools look like in these "unprecedented times"

click to enlarge Local schools are offering free meals to any students under 18. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Local schools are offering free meals to any students under 18.

Before school closed, Nicole Henrichs wanted to address her students — to discuss what the next six weeks would be like, and to tell them she cared and would think about them.

She didn't get that chance. While Gov. Jay Inslee's order to close schools allowed a transition day before the closure took effect March 17, West Valley closed a day early due to its link to a positive COVID-19 case. And for Henrichs, a kindergarten special education teacher there, missing the chance to say goodbye was more than just about how to plan for distance learning.

"For a lot of students, school is much more than education," Henrichs says. "Parents are depending on child care and meals."

Washington students have been torn away from classrooms in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus. It separated teachers like Henrichs from their students, leaving them with a murky understanding of what's expected during the hiatus. Schools aren't equipped to quickly transition to online learning, and many students don't have the resources to do so.

As Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger notes, it's "uncharted territory." Schools are striving to quickly set up some kind of distance learning, yet they're also providing those essential needs of child care and food to the community.

"These are unprecedented, extraordinary times," Redinger says. "So everyone has really been working together collaboratively to make sure we're serving our community as best we can."

THE SCHOOLS MUST GO ON

The Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction earlier this week delivered this message to schools: Learning must continue.

"We have an obligation to our students to provide them with opportunities to continue their learning during this pandemic," writes state Superintendent Chris Reykdal.

What that looks like, exactly, is a bit of an open question, Reykdal says. "We should avoid assuming that continuity of education outside of a typical school building can only occur through online means." It can also be done through printed materials, phone, or some sort of combination.

In Spokane, many teachers gave students packets of homework to do over the break, and in the immediate days after the closure checked in on them. Some teachers held video chats with students.

This week, many school districts ramped up what they provided teachers. West Valley uploaded weekly resources for each grade level, for instance. Central Valley School District says that starting this week, teachers will begin "posting authentic academic engagement opportunities" online.

Not all students have access to those opportunities at home, however. On Monday, the Spokane Education Association posted on Facebook that while "teachers want to teach," it's difficult to guarantee that every student would be able to receive an education through distance learning. You can't send lessons to kids who are homeless.

Schools recognize this. Spokane Public Schools is deploying more than 1,500 laptops to families, which they can sign up for if they don't have computer access. And in a letter to families, Central Valley Superintendent Ben Small says they will be loaning Chromebooks to students who need a device.

Equitable learning "is not a new issue," Redinger points out, but one that schools have been trying to eliminate for a while. Redinger notes, too, that Spokane — with a relatively high percentage of special education students — will try to support those students at home during this time.

Spokane has a short-term plan for the next few weeks, she says, but also a long-term plan should the school closure be extended through the end of the school year. She notes that they're making sure high school seniors are able to get all the credits they need to graduate.

But distance learning, she knows, can't replicate a school environment.

"What we're concerned about as far as learning is the mental health of our students, and the social isolation, and making sure that they feel cared for and that someone is checking in on them to make sure they're OK," Redinger says.

CHILD DROP OFF

When Inslee announced the closure of schools two weeks ago, he made sure to direct them to provide child care for first responders and health care workers. Otherwise, school closures could hinder the efforts to fight COVID-19.

But if kids are congregated at schools for child care, what was the point of closing schools? It's a question schools are trying to balance.

"It's really hard, because we're trying to balance social distancing — keeping everyone safe — and then offering child care. So a lot of it is making sure that we have small numbers of children and that the adult-to-child ratio is pretty small," Redinger says.

Spokane Public Schools opened two child care sites last week for first responders. Central Valley opened four buildings this week to "last resort" child care. Coeur d'Alene Public Schools, which also closed school, also offers emergency K-5 child care on weekdays for health care workers.

FOOD TO GO

Nearly 60 percent of students in Spokane Public Schools — which has more than 30,000 students — are on free and reduced lunch. And as the economy tanks with layoffs due to coronavirus closures, a free meal may be as important as ever.

That's why local schools that have shut down are still opening up to give free meals to all students, if they need them.

"We're making it so it's really easy: It's a bag, we're gonna hand it to them — no, they don't have to touch anything — we've all washed, sanitized, we've got our gloves on," says Doug Wordell, director of nutrition services for Spokane Public Schools. "We're maintaining a safe production for families and hopefully they bring kids in and get a good nutritious breakfast and lunch."

Last week was the first day that Spokane Public Schools began offering grab and go meals for any child — whether they attend Spokane Public Schools or not from 11 am to 1 pm. The district has opened two dozen sites, and Wordell says the plan is to expand to more schools. Central Valley, meanwhile, opened 11 sites.

One of the first sites to open in Spokane was at Garfield Elementary. On its first day, it offered sacks of food, each with breakfast (yogurt, fruit, vegetables and milk) and lunch (a sandwich, fruit, vegetables and milk). Those needing a meal can drive by and pick one up or walk by.

On the first day, almost all of the sites in Spokane Public Schools ran out of the sacks they'd prepared and had to make more.

"Hunger doesn't take a break," Wordell says. "It doesn't take a break in the summer, it doesn't take a break in emergencies."

Wordell says the district will have to overcome some challenges with the supply chain. Lunch meat, for instance, is low. The district may start serving cold pizza or cold burgers that kids can microwave at home.

John Richey, a parent of two Garfield students, says he heard about the meal site via email. He brought his two kids to the meal site as soon as it opened. Before the school closure, he had recently quit his job to start his own business. This week, he says, has felt like a "long weekend" so far.

"It's a little stressful, just the uncertainty of not knowing what's going to happen," Richey says of the school closure.

Francell Daubert, an office manager at Garfield, volunteered to help distribute food to families. She has her own two kids who are now at home because of school closures, but she wanted to help out however she could.

"It's what we need right now," she says. "I'm not a part of the vulnerable community, but I want to make sure those of our staff and families who are have something. And if I'm healthy enough, I can give it to them." ♦

wilsonc@inlander.com

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.