Editor’s note: This is a live account of back-to-school updates from Friday, Sept. 4 as the day unfolded. It is no longer being updated — and will resume after Labor Day, on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Click here to see all the most recent news about the new school year.

Seattle Public Schools (SPS), the state’s largest district, returns to online learning Friday — despite a voicemail mistakenly sent out Wednesday evening that said otherwise. Full online instruction begins Sept. 14.

The decision to start remotely comes after months of deliberation between School Board members, district officials, educators and the teachers union about how to best educate students while protecting vulnerable employees from the novel coronavirus and avoiding its spread to the community.

Superintendent Denise Juneau said in June the school year would involve some amount of in-person instruction, a stance met with opposition from the Seattle Education Association. The district then reversed its decision, after a cautionary health report and pressure from its teachers union, and recommended classes be held remotely. Some classes may occur outside.

Following tense negotiations between SPS and the teachers union, SPS pushed the start of the school year back from Sept. 2 by two days so teachers could receive more professional development. They agreed to respond to messages from families within two business days. In-person learning and services for students with disabilities is to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Throughout Friday, on this page, we’ll be sharing news and updates from the first day of school around the Puget Sound and in Washington state. Updates from Thursday can be found here, and our back-to-school coverage can be found here.

Programming note: There will be no school on Monday, which is Labor Day. Our live updates will return Tuesday, Sept. 8. Have a nice weekend, and we wish you a fruitful return to school — wherever that may be.

'I somehow thought today would feel different,’ says SPS kindergarten teacher

At Education Lab, we're interested in hearing your back-to-school experiences. We're looking for students, teachers and parents to share with us dispatches from your first week of school. If you're interested, you can learn more about the program here.

This dispatch, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, is from Seattle Public Schools teacher Kevin Gallagher, who teaches kindergarten at Bryant Elementary.

School as an empty cavern. That is what today looks, sounds and feels like. Some teaching staff are present, but not all. That adds to the silence.

I somehow thought today would feel different — more alive, more student-centric. Sadly, it did not. The energy, life, sound, movement of 600 kids with 40+ staff were all absent and I grieved. This is our year: remote, distant, atypical, quiet.

While my kinderkids actually "arrive" on Tuesday I visited my other colleagues’ grades and watched them sit in front of laptops stating student names, reading books, explaining work and tasks and exercising and providing movements — "tech stretches."

Teachers still decorated their rooms to look like a classroom. After all, we are still in them. In late July, tables were positioned in classrooms in the event of in-person teaching. Most of us just left the rooms kind of spare — desks socially distant, room for 15 students, all extra furniture long since removed. It felt a bit industrial and cold.

Kids are why we do what we do. Seeing them through a screen is clearly the unwanted new "normal."

If only ALL the grown-ups did their part to slow and end the pandemic. Then kids could go back to being full-time, in-person students we can teach, appreciate and love.

—Hannah Furfaro
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‘So proud of these tenacious and patient students’ says fifth-grade SPS teacher

At Education Lab, we're interested in hearing your back-to-school experiences. We're looking for students, teachers and parents to share with us dispatches from your first week of school. If you're interested, you can learn more about the program here.

This dispatch, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, is from Seattle Public Schools teacher Sam Friedman, who teaches fifth grade at Wedgwood Elementary.

I was elated as students started joining the Teams meeting. This meant they had successfully logged into Schoology, found their messages, and clicked on the meeting link.

Soon, though, the problems started. Students’ screens started freezing up. Muting/unmuting wasn’t working, and many students couldn’t access the new “large gallery” and “together mode” views that I had been so excited about.

We soon realized that students would have to turn off their cameras, otherwise everyone appeared choppy and blurry. A few students were kicked offline when their internet couldn’t keep up.

Despite these myriad issues, I and my students were able to introduce ourselves. Almost every student was able to see my cute PowerPoint slides! We even got to do a quick journaling activity.

By the end of our time together I felt so proud of these tenacious and patient students. I also felt defeated by the technological issues that stopped some students from participating fully in the activities.

Ultimately, I am glad that our “Strong Start” schedule is light on instructional time. I feel confident that I can deal with the tech issues next week and be truly ready by our first full day in “class” on Sept. 14.

—Hannah Furfaro

At a family shelter, Seattle students start school from home, trying not to reveal that ‘home’ is a homeless shelter

When school buildings closed this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, King County’s largest family shelter system, Mary's Place, was thrown into chaos.

For the nearly 700 parents and children in their system, schools provided child care while parents worked, applied to jobs, looked for housing or tried to get on their feet. 

Things were less hectic Friday, the first day of online learning for Seattle Public Schools (SPS) students, but many questions remain about how schooling can work in a homeless shelter.

Some families have gotten housing, shrinking the numbers of school-age kids in the shelters to 130. Most kids now have laptops, and staff at Mary’s Place are more prepared to be standby tech support and handle logistics.

At Mary’s Place’s Regrade shelter in the heart of Amazonia, the “Kid’s Club” — a play area used mostly by toddlers before the pandemic, as evidenced by the Cabbage Patch Kids and storybooks sitting off to the side — has been turned into a remote learning center, where parents who are having trouble connecting to Wi-Fi or getting signed into Seattle Public Schools’ online systems can come for help.

Up against a window looking out on the Amazon Spheres, Sabina Rai, who leads youth services at the shelter, communicated via Google Translate with a young boy whose first language is Spanish. Many of the families at this shelter don’t speak English as their primary language, and some don’t speak English at all: There are a large number of Ethiopian and Eritrean families who are new to the country or the area, according to Marta Asfaw, youth services director at Mary’s Place.

On his first day of school, the young boy is worried about having to explain why he’s wearing a mask on Zoom.

“If they tell you to take off your mask,” Rai types into Google Translate, “tell them you’re in a classroom with other students.” 

Teachers don’t always know if their students are homeless, but now that SPS and most districts in Washington are starting the year online, students run the risk of their housing status being exposed. So Mary’s Place staff tell them to say they’re in “learning pods” or other in-person programs, Rai said.

“Thinking of everything that could go wrong — that’s my specialty,” Rai said.

Still, there are things the staff didn't expect. The Wi-Fi hotspots families received from SPS aren’t providing sufficient Wi-Fi, and even though the Regrade shelter has boosted its broadband signal and limited access to largely school-related things, on Friday morning the shelter’s Wi-Fi also went out.

“It’s been a fun morning so far,” Asfaw laughed. Eight of the shelter’s 40 school-age kids don’t even have laptops yet.

—Scott Greenstone

SPS special education teacher: ‘We all want to do the best we can for our students’

At Education Lab, we're interested in hearing your back-to-school experiences. We're looking for students, teachers and parents to share with us dispatches from your first week of school. If you're interested, you can learn more about the program here.

This dispatch, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, is from a Seattle Public Schools special education teacher named Michelle Farrell.

I’m a teacher of students with visual impairments and work in various schools across the district. The first day has been challenging and somewhat chaotic.

Staff have spent the week in trainings that were frustrating: there were many technological issues, and the trainings were not very relevant to our practice.

There was little time to plan or connect with families or school teams.

As a department, we have been understaffed and student materials were not ordered by the district in a timely manner (like large print and Braille books), so our students are lacking basic access to their academics.

So far today I have not met with students but am making contact with school teams and attempting to find ways to accommodate our students in their virtual classrooms.

The lack of clear guidance and often contradictory information has caused much stress for staff and parents. We all want to do the best we can for our students, and everyone would prefer to be back to our pre-pandemic model of school. Sadly, that is not possible right now.

In the meantime, we are determined to do the best we can for our students within the context of this pandemic, with the health and safety needs of everyone involved guiding us each step of the way.

—Hannah Furfaro
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Technical glitches on first day of Seattle Public Schools

Seattle Public Schools kicked off its soft start to school today, and technical glitches made for a bumpy morning in some homes.

Students spent a few hours Friday getting to know their teachers and classmates over Microsoft Teams, but many families reported difficulty getting on the platform. Some were booted out or could only hear the audio of the calls.

“We are currently experiencing slow internet and learning platform access due to the high volume of traffic this morning. This has resulted in disruption of service on district issued laptops,” SPS spokesman Tim Robinson wrote in an email. “Our technology teams are actively working the issues. We will update this alert when we have a resolution.”

The district is slated to have its first day of full instruction on Sept. 14.
In West Seattle, Chanie Stamford woke her daughters Mkinnley, 6, and Saniyah, 11, at 6 a.m. to get them in the swing of the school routine.

Saniyah, a sixth grader at David T. Denny International Middle School, was only able to hear the audio from her two-hour class call. The screen was blank for some of her other classmates too. Despite the hiccups, she said the call was “really good.”
After explaining technical logistics to the class, Saniyah said, the teacher asked the

students to find an object of special value to them and describe what it was. She chose to talk about her running medal. Students were also asked to send emojis that described how they felt that day. They also did stretches.

MKinnley, who started first grade at Leschi Elementary School, spent her call playing ice breaker games. She drew a picture of her friends playing at recess and held it up to the screen, her mother said.

—Dahlia Bazzaz

Student Voices: Access to mental health resources should be a fundamental right for students

This guest essay is part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Read more columns by local students here.

Junia Paulus, an 18-year-old student at Seattle Pacific University, wrote about her experience seeking mental health care. Read more below.

I checked my phone. 11:57 a.m. I took a bite of sandwich and checked again. Still 11:57. The minutes of lunch were the longest of the day. It was the only part of my schedule where time was unstructured by adults. At lunch in high school, finding space was up to you. I didn’t have one. I shoved the rest of my food into my bag and walked toward the counselor’s office, praying the door would be open. It wasn’t. I walked up the stairs, hoping the secluded nook would be free. It also wasn’t. I went into the library, head low, and slid into a seat, feeling guilty for using a whole table. Feeling very alone.

I now know I’m not the only person who has felt this way. Mental health affects everyone, whether directly or by proximity. Access to help should be a fundamental right of students, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary discussions about racial injustice.

Read her full essay here.

And read more about mental health care for students this year here.

—Junia Paulus, Special to The Seattle Times

First day of virtual school was surprisingly normal for this Renton language arts teacher

Teri Barlow spent the first day of school broadcasting herself via Zoom from a spare room she shares with her cats. And yet, it felt like a surprisingly normal first day of school for this Renton High School language arts teacher.

“There was a lot of chaos and exhaustion, but the kids are actually giving it a whirl,” said Barlow.

She’s one of more than 100 educators who took part in a district-wide steering committee over the summer to discuss what teachers should focus on this fall to make school work better for students.

For the first weeks, she’ll focus on making an emotional connection with her students. During the year, she’s going to tackle social justice issues and antiracism issues with her students. 

Read more about Barlow and her plans for this school year here.

—Katherine Long
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Full-price tuition for online college classes? No thanks! These Seattle-area students are taking a gap year instead

When recent Mercer Island High School grad Lila Shroff boarded her 12-hour flight from Seattle to Seoul, South Korea, she didn’t have concrete plans for her gap year. She wanted to learn some Korean, maybe take a free class or two and possibly get an internship — but first she had to settle into her new home.  

Shroff’s decision to go from Seattle to Seoul came together at the last minute; after Stanford University retracted its plans to allow freshmen on campus this fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, Shroff had a few days to decide whether to brave online schooling or explore the unknown world of the gap year. 

A week later, she was flying to Seoul.

Read the full story here.

—Natachi Onwuamaegbu, Special to The Seattle Times

You can still enroll in Seattle Public Schools

Although Friday marks the official start of school for Seattle Public Schools, families may still enroll their students for the 2020-21 academic year.

Children who are at least 5 years old by Aug. 31 and new Seattle residents are eligible for enrollment.

To enroll online, visit the SPS website.

If calling by phone to enroll, here are the numbers for several languages:

  • Amharic/Oromo: 206-445-3848
  • Chinese: 206-475-1860
  • English: 205-252-0760
  • Somali: 206-471-2414
  • Spanish: 206-471-2414
  • Vietnamese: 206-427-9386

In-person enrollment is available at the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence, 2445 Third Ave. S., Seattle. It will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed noon-1 p.m.) Sept. 8-11. No appointment is required.

Parents must provide:

  • photo identification or passport
  • two pieces of address verification
  • student's certificate of immunization
  • birth certificate or passport for students entering kindergarten or first grade
—Michelle Baruchman

The opposite of online learning: A handful of Washington schools try their hand at outdoor education

Think of what you see and hear in the woods. Bird song. Spiderwebs. Branches framing the sky.

This particular forest is in Port Townsend. It’s an old-growth plot called the Quimper Lost Wilderness. Many of the trees here are more than 170 years old. 

It’s also the site of a local private school’s new outdoor classroom. No desks, no smartboards. Instead, the school will bring in local botanists, poets and historians to teach students about the land’s first people and its role as a habitat for plants and animals. Says Emily Gohn, the school’s head: Class is in session, rain or shine. 

At a time when thousands of children and their teachers are reinventing school on screens, places like Swan School are experimenting with the polar opposite: bringing school to nature. Gohn and a handful of other Washington school leaders are trying their hand at outdoor schooling, a concept that has gained traction nationwide amid pandemic school closures. Seattle schools, for instance, are starting online but may eventually bring some classes back outdoors

Read the full story here.

—Hannah Furfaro
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First Day of School: St. Francis of Assisi Burien.

Ayden Lamuth, 12, in 7th grade at first day of school St. Francis of Assisi Burien. (Courtesy of / Maria Casciola)
Ayden Lamuth, 12, in 7th grade at first day of school St. Francis of Assisi Burien. (Courtesy of / Maria Casciola)

Send us your photos from the first day of school, whether from inside the classroom or atop your dining room table. Email your snapshots to educationlab@seattletimes.com.

—Michelle Baruchman

Catch up on the latest back-to-school news

  • This mostly-online school year is a golden opportunity for 11th- and 12th-graders to take a Running Start class or two. But the deadline for signing up is approaching fast.
  • No local school district we asked has allowed Education Lab to sit in on students’ first days of class, but we've come up with a few solutions.
  • With school serving as a critical resource to mental health care, parents are also stepping into another critical role: mental health responders
  • As a new semester of school begins over the next few weeks, key issues remain, like to how support kids with disabilities, English learners and homeless kids.
  • More than 94% of public school students in Washington will be learning remotely this fall — even in some places where coronavirus risks are considered low. This sets us apart from much of the nation.
  • About 60 of Washington’s 300 school districts — mostly in rural areas — are going back to school face-to-face for at least part of the week. That includes Clarkston, where half the kids are in the building at once, the water fountains are turned off, and hand sanitizer can be found everywhere.
  • "I am way more stressed": Students in Washington reported feeling anxious, unmotivated and uncertain about their future during this past spring semester, according to new survey results collected by students in partnership with The Seattle Times.
  • Some public and private schools are opting to reopen their school buildings despite advice from health officials and worry from some parents and teachers. It could be a rough start.
  • In pandemic learning pods, public-school parents organize small groups of children to take classes and study together with the help of a hired private tutor or teacher — provided they agree to social contracts for managing COVID-19 risk. Some worry that the pods could worsen inequities.
  • When will it be safe to reopen all schools? It's up to us.
  • What does the latest research tell us about the effectiveness of school closures? The jury is still out on key questions, such as how well children spread the virus, and whether closures contain spread. 
—Michelle Baruchman

Connect with us

We'd like to hear about your experience with online learning this past spring. What questions do you have for the fall? Tell us below.

We’re looking for students, teachers and parents to share dispatches from your experiences throughout the first week of school.

Each day, send an email to educationlab@seattletimes.com with roughly 100 words about how that day turned out. What went well? What challenges did you face? What are your concerns? How are you feeling?

Here's more information about how to participate.

Use the hashtag #backtoschoolwa and we may include some of your Tweets in our updates.

—Michelle Baruchman