Tacoma’s youngest students may meet in person four days a week, latest plan shows

Tacoma’s youngest students may meet in person four days a week, latest plan shows
Tacoma Public Schools is bracing for a loss of at least $7 million in its budget for the 2020-21 school year. (Drew Perine/The News Tribune) (Drew Perine)

TACOMA, Wash. — Tacoma Public Schools increased the number of face-to-face learning days for students in kindergarten and first grade returning to school this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students in kindergarten and first grade will have the option to return to school four days a week for in-person instruction, with one day of distance learning, instead of a previous plan of 2-3 in-person class days a week.

Second-graders might also be able to have in-person instruction four days a week, if space allows. The district is still working on a preschool model.

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The update was made because research shows younger students are more vulnerable than older students when it comes to online learning, district staff said.

“That’s something that we heard from our families as well — our youngest students need more face-to-face time,” deputy superintendent Josh Garcia said at a board meeting Thursday. “Virtual is harder for them, just with a digital device and their vulnerability when they’re not in school.”

All other grades — 3-5, middle school and high school students — can choose between an all-online option or a hybrid option consisting of two days of in-person instruction and three days of distance learning.

Self-contained classrooms, such as some special education programs that are already in a cohort, may be able to be on campus more, district staff added.

A survey conducted by the district shows that of 9,000 respondents, 86 percent of Tacoma families were planning to come back to school in a hybrid approach, while 1.5 percent said they did not plan to come back at all and 11 percent said they were unsure.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidance last week encouraging “having students physically present in school.”

“Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation,” the AAP guidance stated.

Space is going to be tight, district staff said.

In addition to required masks and face coverings, students and staff must follow a six-foot social distancing framework in all learning spaces when returning to school in the fall.

The district is required to create a “space map” for each of its learning spaces, Garcia said, showing how staff plans to keep students six feet apart.

The same AAP guidance issued this week suggested that “3 feet may approach the benefits of 6 feet of space, particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic.”

When asked how long the online and hybrid options are supposed to be in effect, Garcia said Thursday the district has been told to plan for the entire 2020-21 school year, but that could change along the way. Garcia said the district “anticipates a spike in the fall” and plans to keep in frequent touch with the health department.