Graduation requirement waiver considered due to COVID-19

OLYMPIA — School districts are hoping the State Board of Education will extend the emergency high school graduation waiver for the class of 2024, citing the lasting impact of COVID-19 on students.

The board authorized school districts to grant waivers to individual students for certain graduation requirements after the state Legislature established the emergency waiver program in 2021 to prevent students from being “unduly impacted by unforeseen disruptions to coursework and assessments that are beyond the student’s control.”

Through the 2022-2023 school year, the waiver allowed students to forgo up to two credits and the “graduation pathway” requirement. The Legislature established the pathway program in 2019 to allow for new avenues to graduate, including demonstration of technical skills.

In 2022, nearly 13 percent of students used a waiver and 8 percent specifically used the pathway waiver, according to a state briefing.

Under the current rules set by the board, districts are still allowed to waive one credit during the 2023-2024 school year. School officials are asking the board to continue waiving graduation pathway requirements for this school year as well.

Scott Friedman of the Association of Washington School Principals told board members during a meeting last week that there are three ongoing obstacles to completing graduation requirements: “credits, classes and mental health.”

Many students and schools are focused on credit recovery right now, Friedman said, because failure rates were high during pandemic-era online learning. Certain technical classes could not be offered online and even after schools reopened, they offered fewer classes due to reduced staff, which makes meeting the graduation pathway requirements more difficult.

“It was this tsunami of factors coming together,” Friedman said.

School counselors told the board that they’re not only seeing negative effects of the pandemic on student mental health, but also on students’ families. Students are also dealing with economic hardship, and families are moving around to find jobs, further hampering credit recovery, said Nicole Sande of the Washington School Counselor Association.

In a School Counselor Association survey of members from more than 70 districts in the state, 94 percent said they had students who would not graduate without the pathway requirement waiver.

Sande also said the waiver would only be used for students who are ready to graduate, including students who have already been accepted into universities or technical schools.

“Please don’t deny our kids that opportunity to walk across the stage,” said Jenny Morgan, another counselor from the Washington School Counselors Association. “It’s going to break our heart.”

There wasn’t a clear consensus from the panel on the best way to proceed with the possible waiver extension.

Patty Wood, a board member from Kelso, said she worried about the tradeoffs involved in continuing the pathway waiver.

“No matter which way I vote,” Wood said, “I’m going to be letting students down, and I’m just not OK with that.”

After discussion, the board decided to direct staff to draft rules guiding how the pathway waiver would be extended should the board decide to keep it going for another year.

The board will vote in early 2024 on whether or not to move ahead with those proposed rules.

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Grace Deng writes for the Washington State Standard (https://washingtonstatestandard.com), an independent, nonprofit news organization that produces original reporting on policy and politics.

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