NCESD Supt. Dr. Michelle Price speaks about COVID-19, opening area schools

Dr. Michelle Price
WENATCHEE -- NCW Media* spoke with North Central  Educational Service District (NCESD) Superintendent Dr. Michelle Price recently about how she would like to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic in regards to opening area schools in the fall. Here, in an exclusive NCW Media interview, Dr. Price answers some basic questions most parents, teachers, employees and especially students want to know:
NCW Media: Tell our readers how many school districts your ESD handles and about enrollment and geographical diversity within?
Dr. Michelle Price: The North Central Educational Service District (NCESD) is a Wenatchee based agency and one of nine non-profit educational service districts in the state.  Educational service districts are legislatively commissioned to provide cooperative programs and services to local public and private schools, enhancing educational opportunities in areas that might otherwise be unavailable to the schools. Educational Service Districts also serve as regional liaisons between the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), State Board of Education, and the Legislature.
The NCESD area includes 12,600 square miles or approximately 20% of the geographical area of the state.  NCESD serves 29 school districts in this region, which includes Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties.  These districts serve over 49,250 students or 5% of the state’s kindergarten through grade 12 enrollment.  They vary in size from Moses Lake with over 8,900 students to Stehekin with 9 students.   Students in the north central region are 1.1% Asian, .4% Black/African American, .2% American Indian/Alaskan Native, 48% Hispanic/LatinX, and 50.3% White.  There are just over 2,000 teachers, 1,500 classified support staff, and 160 principals/administrators throughout the region.  60% of the students in the region live under the poverty threshold and qualify for free or reduced lunch.
NCW Media: What are your feelings about reopening schools for the fall:
Dr. Price:   COVID-19 has been a traumatic event with no end time in sight.  Schools not only allow for parents to get to work but are fundamental to child development and well-being.   When school buildings were closed in March, educators pivoted nearly overnight to adjust to remote teaching methods and to provide nutritional services to families.  Many students and families were unable, due to their own unique situations, to engage in academic learning.   The lack of broadband access and enough devices in homes also made online learning for all impossible.  The importance of in-person learning is well-documented.  Academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition services, specially designed instruction and therapy, and the ability for human connection is a necessity for resilient, healthy, and productive children.   Schools need to reopen safely for students and staff.   I believe school re-opening should be a local decision with stakeholder input and guidance from local health district experts.  There is no one-size-fits all solution.  
NCW Media: Let’s suppose everyone “masks-up,” maintains social distancing and uses hand sanitizer - are those measures good enough to ensure student/teacher safety from coronavirus?
Dr. Price:  I am not a health expert.  What we know is the current CDC, Department of Health, and OSPI guidelines have been developed based on what has been learned about the virus from other states and countries.    Reopening strategies that are outlined in the guidance have shown to help keep kids and staff safe in other locations throughout the world.  The long term traumatic academic and social effects on most kids being home for lengthy periods of time need to be weighed against the risks of using mitigation strategies of masking, social distancing, and good hygiene habits.
Local school districts are working on their plans for providing a high quality education program to every child.  Some schools may be able to maintain the current social distancing requirements with 100% of their students coming back to school full time.  Some will need to have alternative scheduling as they will not have the space to meet the current social distancing requirements.   The guidelines continues to evolve, making finalizing those plans very challenging.  There will be school in the fall.  The quality of the program is what districts are working on.  Please give your local district some grace.
NCW Media: Because of the loss of the winter semester, are there plans for remedial education to catch students up to the grade levels they should be at?
Dr. Price:   Let’s not forget that as COVID-19 set in, kids and families experienced crisis.  Having food on the table in some cases  was a bigger concern than completing school work.  Some students were able to engage in continuous learning and some were non-responsive.  Credit baring courses taken by high school students will need to be completed if they did not stay academically engaged and earn their credit.    Each school district must plan instructional programming to ensure students are able to earn their credit.  
NCW Media: Will there be a need for grade testing to make sure all pupils are at the right level considering the huge loss of class time in the winter of 2020?
Dr. Price:    Every fall and throughout the year, teachers conduct formal and informal assessments to measure a student’s current level of performance and mastery of standards.  They will continue to understand what students know, understand, and are able to do.  The gap for those who were able to engage in the academic instruction over this time compared to the most at-risk youth who were not is assuredly to have grown even wider. 
NCW Media: Will schools offer special accommodations to older educators or those with compromised immune systems due to medical issues?
Dr. Price:  This is a question that local school districts will be working on with their employee groups.  The current order by Governor Inslee expires August 1.  The federal guidance on the high risk employees currently expires in December.   There are leave options available and accommodations that can be made for some types of work within the school systems.  Again, one size will not fit all here.    
NCW Media: President Donald Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding for schools that do not reopen as he is demanding. Does NCESD) have a plan B if this happens?
Dr. Price:  Federal dollars make up about 12% of our local school district budgets.  Those dollars are targeted for our highest need, most vulnerable students and are sent to districts based on federal law such as IDEA for special education or Title 1 poverty.   I do not believe that those funds can be held back as congress allocates them, especially if the services can be provided to the children they are intended to serve.   We all want the economy to get back on track.  We also want children and staff to safely return to school.
NCW Media: Anything else you’d look to add?
Dr. Price: This crisis has challenged each and every one of us.  Let’s not waste the opportunity before us to equip our children with lifelong skills of flexibility, critical thinking, perseverance, and most importantly coping skills.  Soon, schools will announce their fall plans.  Not everyone will be happy about the plans.  Each family will have to make decisions that are in the best interest of their child and their family situation.  I encourage you to remember that YOU impact your child’s attitude about school and how they feel about going back or not.  Remember to be encouraging, do not show them your anger or fear, do not discuss your frustrations in front of them.  You will set your child and your child’s teacher up for success by teaching them to make the best of it.  Teach them to be resilient.  Teach them to persevere.  Teach them to know that they have the ability to cope with really tough situations.  
*NCW Media is the parent company of the Leavenworth Echo, Cashmere Valley Record, Lake Chelan Mirror and Quad City Herald as well as the Wenatchee Business Journal, as well as visitor guides, banners and a variety of advertising services. Managing Editor Gary Bégin: Emailed comments may be published as a “Letter to the Editor” unless otherwise instructed.

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