by Andrew Engelson
In an online news conference Friday morning, Governor Jay Inslee announced — almost exactly one year to the day after he issued an order closing schools statewide to confront the rise of COVID-19 — that he will sign an emergency proclamation requiring all K-12 students in the state be provided with some in-class learning by the end of April. The order requires that by April 5, all students in grades K-6 must be provided a hybrid model of instruction with at least some in-class learning, and by April 19, all students in grades K-12 must be provided some in-class instruction.
The order will prohibit districts from refusing to offer an in-class option and will also require that a series of rigorous health and safety precautions be followed.
“There is now undeniably a mental health care crisis in our state regarding our youth,” Inslee said during the press conference, “and so now is the time for our schools to return this option of in-school learning.”
The order would also allow parents the option of keeping their children exclusively in online, at-home instruction if they so choose. This will mean all school districts in the state will need to provide a hybrid model of instruction featuring both online and in-class learning by mid-April. A minimum of at least two partial days of in-class instruction will be required, the governor said. Seattle Public Schools announced earlier this week that it planned to offer in-class instruction for preschool and students in Intensive Service Pathways starting March 29.
Inslee pointed to his recent order on March 2 adding educators, school staff, and licensed childcare workers to the list of those now eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations as further justification for requiring in-school instruction.
The governor noted that the recently passed federal COVID-19 relief bill will provide the state with $2.6 billion in additional funds, and he suggested that much of those funds would be used to make mental health care support available to the state’s students. He also indicated that some relief funds would be spent to address inequities in the state’s education system.
Chris Reykdal, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, noted that currently in the state, about 50% of students are already receiving some form of in-class learning. Reykdal pointed to isolation as a particularly difficult mental health obstacle, and noted that absences have been spiking at significant rates. He also noted that grades on average have plummeted for some middle and high school students. Reydal observed that the number of students receiving “F” or incomplete grades statewide has jumped from 17% to 24% during the pandemic — a 50% rise in this rate over a typical year.
Reykdal also pointed out that these impacts are disproportionately affecting Native American, Latino, and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander populations across the state.
Noting that federal COVID-19 relief was a one-time payment, Reykdal urged the legislature to consider increasing funding for mental health assistance to youth and children: “We ask the legislature to recognize that the systemic racism, the disproportionate impacts for some of our communities, both health and academic, they don’t go away just because we spend one-time money. Counselors, nurses, mental health support, social workers, and engagement of vulnerable families — that is persistent work that is going to continue to carry us. And we need the legislature to be thinking of those sorts of investments as ongoing, permanent opportunities.”
Dr. Nwando Anyaoku, Chief Health Equity Officer at Swedish Health Services, speaking during the press conference, said, “Here at Swedish, we have seen an extraordinary increase in the number of our emergency department and in-patient admissions due to psychiatric and mental health issues, including stress, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts — just heartbreaking numbers.”
Anyaoku noted that lack of in-person access to counselors and other mental health support has been especially hard on Students of Color. “This mental health crisis is a real and present danger to a whole generation,” she said.
Andrew Engelson is News Director/Deputy Assistant for the Emerald.
Featured Image: School COVID-19 preparations. Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr under a Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.
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