Interview: OSPI Superintendent Chris Reykdal

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Thursday May 7, 12 student journalists interviewed State Superintendent Chris Reykdal concerning distanced learning and OSPI policy to deal with COVID-19. The MIHS Islander was represented by Features Editor Annika Bhananker, who has compiled the highlights and footage, and interviewed MISD Superintendent Donna Colosky to contextualize Reykdal’s words for Islanders. All videos courtesy Kathy Schrier.

On Distance Learning:

Response to student question: “Now that online learning has been up and running in most districts for a few weeks, what feedback have you gotten from students, parents and educators, and how will this impact your decision-making moving forward in terms of school closures and the guidelines you put out?”

MISD’s last day of school was March 13, and the District began online learning April 13. Currently, MIHS administration has said that teachers will communicate through Zoom, Google Meets/ Hangouts, Email or Schoology. Our distance learning is spread over multiple platforms, which can be confusing for students, parents and even educators to navigate.

OSPI direction hopes to limit districts to one method of communication for efficiency and clarity. Come fall, MISD is expecting to have an approach which involves an online platform in some way, a “hybrid” model  with some changes to online learning based on student and educator feedback. 

MISD Superintendent Donna Colosky said that the District will be re-evaluating the platforms used to create cohesion in online learning in the fall because community feedback emphasized the need for consistency in communication.

We’re guiding districts this fall [to have] a learning management system for your district and professional development with your teachers so they are prepared to be successful with [online learning]

OSPI Superintendent Chris reykdal

Although online learning relieves the community of health and safety concerns, it can also be difficult for families and students who require additional instruction, or who have a 504 or IEP. Although online learning cannot replace in-person instruction, Colosky has said that the District has worked with each family in order to create a plan for students struggling with the transition to distance learning, utilizing small-group breakout rooms and personal check-ins with teachers. 

“So it’s very similar to the same supports that are present in brick-and-mortar. We know who those students are and their specific needs in moving forward with learning,” she said. “Is it perfect? No. We still have work to do, as I think every school district in the nation does because we very quickly went to something that no one had anticipated we were going to have to do.”

Since the beginning of the distance learning program in April, school weeks have been reduced from the standard six-hour days five days a week, to two to four hours a day four days a week. This reduction in instructional time, Colosky said, does not necessarily translate to decreased student learning, however. 

The transition to online learning, however, has meant an increase in screen usage for students. 

“We know it’s not good for anyone, kids or adults, to be on screens all day,” Colosky acknowledged.  “We are so concerned about everyone’s mental health and social-emotional wellness, and we spend a lot of time talking about screen time and how you want to limit that. And now we’ve told everyone to give their children screens and allow them to spend hours on it to do their homework. 

Despite the flaws of the system, Colosky hopes to improve the program through feedback from parents, teachers and students, and says that the District relies heavily on survey feedback to improve the program. 

“I don’t think there’s a perfect answer to adapting online learning to less instructional time… It still won’t look like brick and mortar because that’s always going to be different, but if we can have the highest quality of learning for all students, no matter if it’s online or in the classroom, then wwe will have achieved what I feel is truly an equitable education system.”

On how COVID-19 will Affect District Funding:

Response to student question: “What [will] the school year budget will look like next year [in each district] because of COVID?”

“What’s really scary for districts is if their levy cycle is up, if they’re due to go back to voters for a levy. when you have a 20% unemployment rate … will they still support local property taxes?”

Reykdal

Mercer Island’s four-year levy was passed 2018, meaning that the island is due for another levy reevaluation in 2022. According to Mercer Island Schools, the last levy accounts for 20% of the MISD general fund and 38% of special education funding.

Mercer Island voters, Colosky said, have a history of supporting public education through levies.

“Mercer Island voters have been very supportive of public education, we have always passed our levies at a very high rate, higher than any of the districts around us. Even the one we passed in 2018 was well above the 70% mark, which was well above any of our surrounding districts. So we’ve always had a community that does support public education. That doesn’t mean that we are going to keep counting on that. We are going to continue to adapt and grow what we are doing because of the changes that have occurred.”

Colosky continued that the effects of COVID-19 may not be immediately felt financially for the District for some time, adding that a bigger concern than levies was potential decreases in enrollment.

“A bigger piece that I am more concerned about is enrollment,” she said. “If families have to relocate because of jobs or not having jobs, and we lose enrollment, that is a huge financial loss for us.”

“We knew our enrollment was going to be flat or declining, it was already projected before the pandemic. So we had adjusted our budget assumptions, so we are not overly concerned about the first year. Just like everyone, we are concerned about ‘21, ‘22, and the subsequent years after that.”

The added financial stress from a levy year, however, is a concern that Colosky and MISD are taking very seriously, and hope to find solutions to.

“We are being very careful about every dollar we are spending right now so we are keeping that deposit in the bank and holding onto every dollar right now so that in the future we are still going to have the money to pay our employees and build the system we want to have.”

“We are not overly concerned for next school year, the bigger concern happens in subsequent years and what happens to our enrollment,” she said. “And yes, we are going to be going out for levies. How are we going to talk to our community about why those dollars are so important on Mercer Island? The levy pays for a third of our teachers and support staff, so it is a very important conversation.”

On how COVID-19 will Affect Transcripts:

Response to student question: “There will be a COVID-19 tag put on this year’s transcripts, what will that do exactly, and how will colleges and employers be directed to treat the courses that have this tag on them?”

[Higher education] wanted the designator as a reminder of the moment we were in so they can make sense of the transcript … It will remind us that the course was taken during a really unusual set of circumstances.

reykdal

Although it’s hard to know exactly how higher education and employment offices will evaluate schooling during this time it’s important to keep in mind that we are all struggling through the same feelings of uncertainty. Colosky emphasized that the District is working through these challenges to provide updates and supplemental resources to students.

“I know there are compliances and guidelines about how many instructional minutes we have in brick and mortar,” she said. “But for me it’s more about the quality of the teaching of learning, and that’s what is really important.”

On Social Distancing Measures in Fall:

Response to student question: “Have you considered implementing social distancing or extra health measures for students and staff to follow when schools reopen this fall?”

Among the measures that Reykdal proposed are the creation of cohorts, or half-day schooling. These measures, he said, will ultimately be decided by the DOH and be recommended to districts through OSPI.

Although Colsosky admitted there is a lot of uncertainty regarding a return to school in the fall, she continued that MISD was actively working on the problem and creating a variety of models for each stage of Gov. Inslee’s plan.

MISD, Colosky said, is currently looking into hybrid models, to continue both brick-and mortar schooling and online schooling to support immunocompromsied and at-risk students and staff.

“There is going to be school in the fall,” she said. “What it looks like, I can’t ensure you completely. We will probably have several options which we will have to have available to us. My goal as superintendent is to have not a set plan, but a message to all families at the end of the school year [detailing] what it’s going to look like if we are in phase 4 of the governor’s phase in plan for how we can get Washington restarted or what it will look like if there is a resurgence of the virus or if there is an outbreak of a virus related to a school or more than a school, here’s what would happen.”

She also said that the District is looking to models such as staggered scheduling and integrated online and brick-and-mortar schooling, although both have their drawbacks.

The full interview with Reykdal can be found here:

Student interviewers:

Teagan SutherlandArlington HS
Nathaniel ReyesMountlake Terrace HS 
McKenzie BandyEllensburg HS
Annika Bhananker Mercer Island HS
Eric KaiserRiver Ridge HS
Rebekah LindsayNorth Creek HS
Sonya SheeptunovInglemoor HS
Lana MossPuyallup HS
Una ClearyNathan Hale HS
Madisun TobischSedro-Woolley HS
Lili CruzWenatchee HS
Abby Schaefer Glacier Peak HS