Commentary: Hybrid is not enough — open schools full time now

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It has been one year since students fully stepped into their classrooms. It’s time to get back to school, and not in a hybrid situation that for too many kids and parents just isn’t working.

On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state is moving to a new Phase 3 recovery plan in regards to the COVID-19 virus.

It allows more in-person spectators for prep and professional sports and outdoor gatherings; increased capacity to 50 percent for restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and fitness centers; and an eventual green light for everyone for vaccinations.

Inslee based the decision on decreasing case rates and hospitalizations, as well as accelerated vaccinations.

Then, on Friday, Inslee announced all schools must open for in-person learning at least two days a week starting April 19, with kindergarten through sixth grade opening up for in-person learning for at least two days a week by April 5.

In a press release Thursday, Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for the Department of Health, said, “We know there is enthusiasm around opening of schools and businesses and that advancing to Phase 3 is welcome news to many Washingtonians. We want to keep going forward together out of the pandemic, and our success hinges upon wearing masks, washing our hands, watching our distance, keeping social circles small — and of course, getting vaccinated when it’s our turn.”

To state that Washingtonians are enthusiastic about opening schools is an understatement.

Too many parents have had to quit their jobs to watch their kids during the day as child care costs are prohibitive. For a single parent, that means a loss of dollars and real economic struggles.

For some, the economic struggles equate to difficulties in providing shelter and food.

Students are suffering academically and also emotionally, according to statements made on Friday by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal.

The hybrid model of going to school a few days a week is just not working. To be fair, some students thrive studying from home. They might be better focused or in-tune with technology. They might be self-motivated. They might be avoiding the bullying that occurs in schools. But they are the minority.

The hybrid model is difficult for teachers as well. A high school teacher friend of mine said when she switched to online learning, her hours soared from about 50 hours a week to 80 hours a week. We’re burning our teachers out, something that is already occurring in the best of times.

Another elementary teacher friend of mine said there is just no substitute for trained teachers with focused in-person classroom learning, as well as the essential social interactions found when students enter the classroom.

“Parents just aren’t teachers,” my friend said.

President Biden has proposed getting grades kindergarten through eighth grade back full time by mid-April.

Teachers and school administrators respond that with crucial social distancing of six feet, and mandates to keep school classes separated from each other on campus, bringing students back will require expanded spaces, such as cafeterias, for impromptu classrooms. Expanded space means the need for more teachers, or at least teacher aids.

Still, I think President Biden has this right, and Inslee’s Friday announcement falls short of the ideal. Unfortunately, it might be too little too late as the current school year, by mid-April, will only have two months remaining.

While time is running out, there is still time to make the best of a bad situation and open our schools in Washington state full-time.

It will require making it a priority.

How about getting all the teachers vaccinated now who desire the shot. How about emergency resolutions from our state, county and local leaders that provide more staffing and financial assistance for the final two months of the school year.

Trying times call for extraordinary efforts. Inslee’s partial opening and pressing forward with hybrid learning falls short.

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Michael Wagar is a former publisher of The Reflector. He can be reached at michaelbwagar@gmail.com.

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