OLYMPIA, Wash., January 8, 2022 – State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal held a press conference yesterday to discuss the state of K-12 education in Washington throughout the pandemic and more recently the Omicron variant. The press conference covered COVID/Omicron updates, student mental health, graduation rates, 2021 student assessment, school funding, teacher education, state legislation, and more.
Earlier this year, the Lynnwood Times compiled several metrics from the most recent OSPI Report Card and from the individual districts’ websites and social media accounts to help its readership understand how their district compares with other local districts. The link to the October article can be found here.
Superintendent Chris Reykdal opened the conference with updated data showing how the pandemic currently affects schools across the state. According to health officials, COVID-19 cases continue to increase statewide and nationally, and officials predict the Omicron variant will cause a peak in positive cases in January before an eventual decline.
“Our biggest risk right now for keeping our schools open, quite frankly, is our staffing issues,” Reykdal said during the conference. He predicts that Omicron will cause schools to close temporarily as teachers enter quarantine, causing further staffing shortages.
Reykdal did assert, however, that “there will not be closures ordered from this office or the governor’s office under the circumstances we’re in now.” Local school districts, however, may still make their own decisions regarding closures as they deem necessary.
According to OSPI data, 90 percent of school employees are fully vaccinated, along with roughly 42 percent of students, with higher vaccination rates for high school students and lower for elementary students. Reykdal added that the vaccination rates amongst 5-11-year olds is “too low,” though acknowledging the state numbers for the age group are higher than the national average.
When asked if he would support adding the COVID vaccine as another prerequisite for attendance, Reykdal said he would give it his full support if the decision were given the “full process of review,” including approval from the Board of Health amongst other public health officials. “If the decision is to add it, I will 100% support that,” Reykdal said.
Reykdal predicted the COVID vaccine will not be mandatory for school attendance in the next year.
Student Mental Health
The pandemic and corresponding lockdowns have taken a toll on the mental health and wellbeing of students across the nation. Students have experienced unprecedented isolation, loss of loved ones, all while adjusting to remote and distance learning.
Each year in Washington State the OSPI records data from students in their Healthy Youth Survey, attempting to identify how students are faring. The survey is a collaborative effort by the OSPI, the Department of Health, the Health Care Authority – Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery, and Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Their most recent survey, which was distributed in the spring of 2021, determined that two-thirds of middle school students and half of high school students reported feelings of hopelessness for a prolonged period. Reykdal, however, believes that this is “not new to the pandemic time,” as he explained, and that “there’s clearly something larger going on.”
While Reykdal thanked Governor Jay Inslee for prioritizing student mental health in budget allocations – including prioritizing social workers, counselors, and support staff – he and the OSPI will be asking the legislature for further investments to support student mental health.
The full results of the 2021 Healthy Youth Survey will be available in March 2022.
In 2021, Washington State saw a slight drop in the 4-year graduation rate at 82.5 percent, a 0.4 percent decline from 2020. The state saw an improvement for Black American students (up 1.4 percent), Asian students (up 1.4 percent), and multilingual/English learners (up 0.5 percent). The graduation rates declined for Native American students (down 2.1 percent), foster youth (down 2.7 percent), and low-income students (down 1.1 percent).
Graduation rates have shown an upward trend throughout Reykdal’s time in office, increasing steadily from 79.3 percent in 2017.
2021 Fall Assessments
Though Washington has no legislature that mandates state-wide assessment for education, the state does follow federal assessment requirements. The federal government, however, canceled the required assessment in the spring of 2020, and OSPI moved the spring 2021 testing to the fall to make the most of the limited in-person learning time. As a result, students were assessed based on the previous year’s material, some of which students had not seen in five to thirteen months.
The OSPI report card, which details the results of the assessments, will be made available in the next four to five weeks, according to Reykdal. The state expects to resume typical spring assessments in 2022.
This year Washington State fell behind national averages in state spending on education by nearly a billion dollars. According to a national analysis, which measures state spending on education by the percentage of Gross State Product [GSP] invested in public K–12 schools, Washington has consistently fallen behind the national average over the last few years. Reykdal added that Washington fell $4-5 billion short just a few years ago.
Reykdal credits the spending increase to the legislature but implores the state to resist budget cuts amidst enrollment drops, which he believes are “short-term blips.” In fact, nearly every district in the state has seen enrollment drops throughout the pandemic.
He added that he believes further changes must be made to correct the school funding process. “Our capital budget system is broken,” Reykdal said.
Under the current system, districts vote upon a proposed capital budget, where it must pass with 60 percent approval. When it passes, the state matches the funds gathered from the community. In cases of rural, small population, or low-income communities, schools will inevitably have lower budgets than those in districts with more capital.
Reykdal did not, however, propose a solution.
Proposed Changes to High School Credits
According to a recent survey, only 38 percent of students believe that what they are learning is important to know throughout their lives. To bridge this disconnect, Reykdal proposed giving students (particularly eleventh- and twelfth-grade students) more control over their credit and elective choices without reducing credit loads. “In this state, one of the things we do is listen to our students,” Reykdal said.
He also suggested conferring credit for students with part-time jobs. Students currently are not earning credit for paid or volunteer work outside of school, despite learning important skills and lessons on the job. Reykdal did not, however, discuss a timeline for implementing a credit-for-work system in the future.
Washington Teacher Education
Another proposed change included the internship process for prospective teachers. Most prospective teachers are required to complete unpaid internships as a part of their graduation requirements, all while paying tuition and living expenses.
In response, Reykdal proposed what he calls a “comprehensive residency model,” in which prospective teachers would be paid for their internships all while learning under a master teacher and gaining valuable classroom experience.
“We want the best and brightest teachers to come to the state of Washington, and we want to remove barriers for them,” Reykdal said.
Other Educational Changes
Dual language programs and inclusionary practices for special education remain two priorities for Reykdal, who explained that integrating students with special needs into classrooms, rather than isolating them, proves more effective when using specialized learning plans.
He also encourages districts to consider a more flexible calendar, one with a shorter summer to prevent learning loss over the break, as well as adding longer breaks throughout the year to accommodate overworked teachers. The flexible calendar would still keep in line with a 180-day school year.
Early learning programs were also discussed, with Reykdal promoting education as early as three years old. “We believe in multiple channels,” Reykdal said, which includes private school, headstart, home programs, and more.
This legislative session, a bill will be introduced that will turn the voter-elected position of state superintendent into a governor-appointed position.
“Currently, several different boards and commissions govern Washington’s K–12 school system, which is often confusing and duplicative for school districts. It also hinders our ability to set and make progress on a statewide vision for our students,” the OSPI news release states.
Reykdal fully supports this proposed legislation, claiming that the state needs a single source of executive leadership to execute policy. “We need to align and simplify who has authority,” Reykdal said.
The bill would require a constitutional amendment, a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate, and must pass a vote of the people.