It’s been two weeks since Seattle Public Schools released preliminary details about its plan to reopen buildings in the fall. Now, amid heightened debate across the region and the country about the health risks of resuming instruction in person, the teachers union and some School Board members are searching for alternatives.

This week, the Seattle Education Association issued a statement opposing in-person teaching in the fall, calling it “reckless” under current conditions and advocating 100% remote learning. The union is bargaining with the school district over work conditions for this fall.

At the same time, a few School Board members are drafting an ambitious alternative to the complex reopening plan the district had previously proposed: two hours of instruction outdoors on most days, and remote learning in most other cases. School buildings would be reserved for a narrow list of activities, including special-education services and support for remote learning.

The debate over reopening school buildings

Opening school buildings — an essential step to reopening the economy — has become a divisive issue nationwide, with districts weighing the substantial loss of learning resulting from school closures against the health risks of gathering kids and adults together, even with distancing guidelines.

Over the past week, largely hollow threats from President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to withhold funding from schools that don’t reopen in the fall added more fire to the debate. The Trump administration also discussed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines around distancing in schools as impractical; the CDC has said it will release updated guidelines soon.

Some recent research has pointed to lower risk of transmission and infection in children. Even so, gatherings of adults — especially in areas with high coronavirus caseloads — can have severe consequences.

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Educators and policymakers have discussed those implications this week as they learned about three Arizona summer schoolteachers who caught the coronavirus while socially distancing, using masks and hand sanitizers. The three shared a classroom while teaching online. One of the teachers has since died.

The nation’s second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, scrapped its plans for in-person schooling this week and opted for an online-only start to the school year. San Diego did the same.

What about Seattle?

“LA and other districts’ decisions are not impacting us at this time. We are interested in all data and information that is pertinent, and the superintendent communicates with other superintendents nationwide on a regular basis,” said Tim Robinson, a district spokesperson.

An outdoor alternative?

Children check their distancing after a recess in Logumkloster, Denmark, in April. Denmark was the first country in the Western world to reopen its elementary schools after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. (Emile Ducke / The New York Time, file)
Children check their distancing after a recess in Logumkloster, Denmark, in April. Denmark was the first country in the Western world to reopen its elementary schools after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. (Emile Ducke / The New York Time, file)

But some School Board members are working on an alternative. Members Chandra Hampson, Brandon Hersey and Liza Rankin haven’t yet introduced their proposal for formal consideration. Hampson said she didn’t know when that would happen, but the Board is scheduled to meet and review a district restart plan on Aug. 12.

The draft resolution, released to the public Tuesday afternoon, tries to address both health and academic concerns.

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It prioritizes limiting risk of spreading the virus — which researchers have found does not spread as easily outdoors. It also focuses on expanding access to the outdoors for youth of color, whose families, according to a district survey, were less likely to feel comfortable sending their kids back into school buildings for the fall. The same survey of Seattle families found the vast majority wanted in-person schooling, but the respondents were predominantly white. (The district is a little less than 50% white.)

It would scrap the district’s currently proposed A/B scheduling model, which would have students coming into buildings on alternate days to restrict indoor traffic, and instead have the district collaborate with teachers and community organizations to build an outdoor education model that includes most students.

Many components of the proposal hinge on uncertain factors, including a “request that the City of Seattle, county and state support the district and Seattle Public Schools families by dedicating large swaths of public outdoor spaces for educational purposes during school hours.” It would also require permission from the state education department to start school a week later to allow teachers to learn more about implementing this model. Even with a delayed start, the outdoor model would not roll out fully until late fall or early winter.

Hampson, one of the authors, acknowledged the open questions. But by releasing the draft ahead of formal introduction, she hopes to start a “full city conversation.”

“There’s lots of data to support that when you have outdoor time, walking through nature, there’s a tremendous benefits for kids,” she said. “We’re open to hard questions and feedback.”

A district spokesman declined to comment on the plan.

Teachers unions concerned about Washington’s caseloads

Teacher’s unions here and elsewhere have been at the forefront of the reopening debate, demanding that schools wait until their regions see lower coronavirus transition rates before their buildings reopen.

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 “We’re not willing to risk our students’ or members’ lives,” said Jennifer Matter, the Seattle union’s president.

In Washington, coronavirus caseloads are climbing, and hospitalizations have recently started to creep back up as well. On Monday, as Washington reported a record-high one-day total of 1,101 additional cases, Gov. Jay Inslee asked the federal government to continue paying for the use of National Guard soldiers through year’s end to help manage the response. As of 11:59 p.m. Sunday, 41,757 people had been diagnosed in the state, accounting for about 5.9% of the state’s total volume of 708,274 coronavirus tests.

Guidelines from the state education department, created with the state health department, directed school districts to prepare for open school buildings in the fall, and to create a backup plan for 100% remote learning in case transmission rates make in-person classes inadvisable. Beyond those conditions, districts have been free to draw up their own plans. Many, like Seattle and Tacoma, have chosen a hybrid approach of online and physical classes.

Recommendations from the state education department have not changed amid scrutiny over reopening plans, said Katy Payne, a spokesperson for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

It is not clear what educators in high-risk COVID categories would be required to do. Approximately 2.2% of all classroom teachers in Seattle are 65 and older, according to the district.

Since June, Matter and other union leaders have criticized the district’s plans as “rushed.” Tensions arose over the weekend when the district sent an email to principals saying that preschoolers and kindergartners would be eligible for four to five days of in-person classes, something that “wasn’t brought to the bargaining room,” Matter said.

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“Seattle Public Schools continues to bargain in good faith with the Seattle Education Association,” Robinson wrote in an email. “The safety of our students, families and staff is our top priority and we will continue to follow the recommendations of Public Health — Seattle & King County, the State of Washington Department of Public Health, OSPI, and the governor’s office.”

The union says it is using some of its time in the bargaining room calling for a stronger remote learning infrastructure, including more training and technology for teachers.

“Our goal is taking a hard look at improving the system of remote learning because it wasn’t good enough in the spring,” Matter said. Engagement among students, especially kids of color and students receiving special education services, has been low for online learning here and elsewhere.

When asked if the union’s stance would shift if health guidance permitted schools to reopen, Matter said it would be examined. But with a little over a month until school starts, she said she believes the situation won’t feel safer no matter what.

“We wanna be able to go to sleep at night and know we did not contribute in any way to the death of a student and family member or cause any harm,” she said.