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How this school district is educating students at home during coronavirus outbreak

A growing number of U.S. schools, including several colleges and universities, are shutting their doors to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Although only a small fraction of public elementary and high schools have closed, more than 430,000 students are affected already. John Yang talks to Michelle Reid, superintendent of Washington state’s Northshore School District, about the decision to close.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A small, but growing number of schools around the country are shutting their doors to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus. That includes a number of colleges and universities.

    It's just a fraction of public elementary and high schools. But, so far, more than 620 schools have closed or are scheduled to close, affecting more than 430,000 students.

    Washington state was the early epicenter in the U.S.

    And John Yang has a look at one of the school districts there that decided to take this step.

  • John Yang:

    The Northshore School District, north of Seattle in Washington state, has shifted all its classes for its more than 23,500 students from brick-and-mortar classrooms to the Internet for at least two weeks.

    Michelle Reid is the superintendent of the Northshore School District. She joins us from Seattle.

    Superintendent Reid, thanks so much for being with us.

    In your letter to parents explaining this decision, you said that: "We are no longer able to provide quality instruction and maintain an environment that is safe for our staff and students to learn."

    What led you to that conclusion?

  • Michelle Reid:

    Well, there are several issues.

    Northshore is uniquely situated, with two counties and three cities, and within our two counties, we have the highest number of coronavirus-identified cases and deaths in the United States.

    We also had a significant number of staff that met the four criteria for at risk. So I really could no longer safely open and operate school without quality staff supporting the educational process in a brick-and-mortar campus.

    We also had escalating absentee rates, up to 20 percent just prior to us making the decision to transition school from the classroom to the cloud.

    And it's our first day. We were only at 500 students not able to log again. Therefore, we actually are at a 2 percent absence rate.

  • John Yang:

    How does this actually work? Students log in on their computers at home, and what happens?

  • Michelle Reid:

    So, we're — it's an online platform we're utilizing.

    So we actually a daily schedule for students. And there are times that they log in for classes and their discussion boards. And the teachers have been working really hard and our support professionals to provide lessons and content that is sent in some cases by video and others by attached documents and discussion boards, so that we're able to maintain our Northshore quality of education during this health crisis.

  • John Yang:

    Was there an issue with students who didn't have a computer or didn't have Internet service at home?

  • Michelle Reid:

    Absolutely.

    We are a district that has a lot of resources that not all communities and districts have. We have received approximately 4,000 requests for computer devices and about 300 requests for mobile hot spots, which we have been able to meet.

    And I also think it underscores a broader national conversation about equity and access to technology and the Internet and students' access dependent still on their zip code in this country.

    So, hopefully, when this health crisis passes, it's a conversation we can take up in earnest.

  • John Yang:

    In your letter to the parents, you also said that education is a service, it is not a place.

    But there are certain things that are provided at that place that the service is usually provided. For instance, I know that 15 percent of your students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

    You obviously have students who require — have special needs, and there are certain families that have child care issues during the day for younger students in particular. What happens or what are you doing about those students?

  • Michelle Reid:

    Well, so, let me be clear that overriding all of those concerns are the health and safety of our students and staff and our ability to slow the spread of this coronavirus, whereas social distancing has been the recommendation number one for us.

    Having said that, we have gotten a team together. And we are providing food today to those students who have asked for food. We're doing at four brick-and-mortar sites and also delivering to 16 remote school sites.

    So, all students and families who want or need food as — or rely on the schools for food are able to procure food. The same with child care. We're going to be supporting community sites for child care for those families who require it, as long as we can maintain that in a health — healthy and safe way.

    So we're trying to continue to provide those services, while we take care of our professional educators and support staff and students by keeping them safe with a social distancing plan.

  • John Yang:

    You said that this is initially going to be for two weeks.

    At the end of the two weeks, how do you decide whether to go back to the brick-and-mortar classroom?

  • Michelle Reid:

    We're going to be evaluating that on a day-to-day basis. We will continue to look at our data and the fact pattern locally and nationally, and we will make those decisions as they come.

    Our ability to move from classroom to cloud and back is going to enable us to continue to be nimble in our decision-making. And we're providing parents daily communication, as well as students.

  • John Yang:

    Michelle Reid, superintendent of the Northshore School District in Washington state, thank you very much.

  • Michelle Reid:

    Thank you.

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