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 It is no longer being updated.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

Districts throughout the state returned to school last week — some in person and most online. Educators and parents described the first few days as challenging and somewhat chaotic.

Screens froze. Wi-Fi access fizzled. And background noise disrupted some class introductions. (Officials have pledged to fix some of the issues related to Internet connection for this new school year.)

As students logged on remotely, some exposing their vulnerable housing status while doing so, the usual vibrancy of the first day — navigating new hallways, greeting familiar faces — was dulled.

“The energy, life, sound, movement of 600 kids with 40+ staff were all absent and I grieved,” one teacher said.

As we report on the first week of school, without being able to sit in on classes ourselves, we’d like to hear from you about your experiences. What went well? What challenges did you face? What are your concerns? How are you feeling? Send an email to educationlab@seattletimes.com with roughly 100 words about how the day turned out.

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

With some schools moving outdoors, retailers follow

With a number of U.S. schools opting for outdoor education over the potentially germier confines of their traditional indoor spaces, demand for outdoor apparel and waterproof supplies has gone through the roof.

According to the chief executive of Oaki, a company based near Salt Lake City that makes outdoor apparel for children, demand “has been overwhelming."

It is a sentiment echoed by other outdoor-oriented companies, some of which are launching new product lines or repurposing existing ones to capitalize on how the pandemic has changed the education experience.

Oaki CEO Sam Taylor said demand for Oaki products has increased 60% this year, a challenge because the company is experiencing pandemic-related delays with its manufacturers in India and Mexico.

As a result, Taylor has “prioritized individual schools or parents” over warehouse and retail orders. He has also rushed to market a line of fleece and wool socks that don’t need to be washed every day, in response to a request from a Vermont school.

“There’s been a ton of research that’s shown how productive being outside is,” Taylor said. “There’s no reason a little moisture or rain should stop that. If anything, that should be a positive if you’ve got the right gear.”

—The New York Times
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School, health officials remind parents that kids still need immunizations

The school year may be kicking off online, but parents still have to make sure their children have up-to-date vaccinations.

Concerned that scheduling vaccinations may have been a problem for many parents because the COVID-19 pandemic delayed many regular doctors’ visits, public health and school officials are reminding parents of the importance of getting vaccinations for their children.

Across Washington, children received fewer vaccinations earlier this year, according to the state Department of Health. At the Child and Adolescent Clinic in Longview, child well-visits decreased in the spring, and doctors are reminding parents that it’s safe to bring children in for appointments.

Combined with another wave of COVID-19, an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease could be devastating for families and the health care system, said Carole Harrison, interim director of the health department.

Read the full story here.

—The Daily News, Longview, Wash.

'It was pure chaos,' says Puyallup parent

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 Puyallup School District parent Kari Morton.

My three children went back to school last week for distance learning at Wildwood Elementary in Puyallup. Anthony is in fifth grade, Olivia is in third grade, and Wyatt is in first grade.

My students were allowed to pick their laptops from the district up only two days prior to the first day. Once we got the laptops home, we disinfected them, charged them, and tried to learn the layout of the programs.

I can tell that the teachers and staff put a huge amount of effort into trying to have a smooth start to the first day. This is new to all of us, so there was bound to be a few hiccups. However, I was not prepared for the amount of time and stress I would spend bouncing among my three children to ensure they were able to properly access the class meetings and apps they needed to do their assignments.

The Puyallup School District has moved from using Zoom to Microsoft Teams. This was a new program for my kids and I to learn how to use. Two out of three of our student laptops did not have Microsoft Teams on it. When we tried to download it, the site was blocked. We were able to access it through the internet browser, but it was very glitchy and the screen was sideways.

After finally getting each of my children logged into Microsoft Teams, it was pure chaos. Unlike Zoom, everyone can talk at once and be heard — including everyone’s background noise. The teacher was trying to speak but was being drowned out by the sounds of a TV playing in the background from a student. The sounds of a crying baby. Frustrated parents.

A few of the applications would not accept my children’s email and passwords. After emailing teachers (I’m sure they were inundated with frustrated parents who were having technical difficulties), we received a response a few hours later.

In the mean time I tried bouncing among all three of my kids' needs as none of them really know how to navigate a computer the way that they’re expected to. Two hours into the school day, I called it quits.

I was spinning in a whirlwind of live class meetings, failed passwords, assignments we couldn’t access, and three children who each needed my undivided attention to help them in different classes.

I know it’s not just my family who had a hard time today. I don’t know if it was a system overload, slow Wi-Fi, or just not enough time for families to learn the layout.

With all of the issues we encountered today, and all of the hard work that has gone into trying to make this system flow better, I still couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t fair to my children’s education. As a working parent, it’s stressful.

—Michelle Baruchman

'We'll take these small victories,' parent says

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 Julie Kaufield, who has children in private schools.

The day started with our dog waking up my 10-year-old son, who seems to enjoy rolling out of bed to sign into his Google Classroom through the Bright Water Waldorf School.

My seventh grader at Westside School is going to an outdoor educational experience, so once the little guy is set up, I wake her. Who would have thought masks and hand sanitizer would be a part of necessary school supplies?

I realized — as I’m throwing snacks and drinks into a backpack — that I need to do the online health screen prior to drop off for outdoor education. The dog looks at me with ears dropped and I remember he hasn’t been outside yet.

I get our daughter and dog out the door without incident and return to a major win: finding our fifth grader still at his desk. 

Even with a mask and 6 feet of distance on a football field, the school helped the kids do activities focused on getting to know one another.

We’ll take these small victories and hope for more as we navigate this new life we lead. Maybe, it won’t be so bad after all.

—Michelle Baruchman
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Enrollment up in Washington state’s Alternative Learning Experience school programs

BATTLE GROUND — It’s an unusual start to the school year for all families, but for those at River HomeLink in the Battle Ground school district, the reach to distance learning hasn’t been as far.

This kindergarten through 12th-grade campus in Battle Ground Public Schools offers a blended model for families, offering a mix of online classes and support for families that home-school their children. Some are enrolled in on-campus programs, though those programs are on hold for now.

In effect, it’s what traditional schools have been forced to shift to as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“I felt like we were better equipped to handle it than some of the other schools, just because our kids are already … used to being self-paced,” said Christina Beck, a parent of three who attend River HomeLink.

The school is what’s known in Washington as an “Alternative Learning Experience,” programs designed for families wishing to provide some or all of their child’s school outside of a traditional campus. Students are paired with a teacher who does weekly check-ins, and families at River HomeLink can choose from a slate of curriculum they believe will meet their child’s needs.

“It allows that flex parents need,” Principal Matt Kesler said.

As Washington schools continue to provide distance learning for children, these programs appear to be growing in popularity. River HomeLink added 567 new students as of Sept. 1, bringing its fall enrollment to 1,570 students over last year’s 1,003. That number could be growing; Kesler said his registrar’s phone has been ringing off the hook.

Read the full story here.

—The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

To start an unusual school year, some Washington state districts let teachers take the lead

The relationship between unions and school districts took on a new dimension during the pandemic.

Beyond the traditional back-and-forth over hours, pay and class sizes, Brittell and other union leaders faced more urgency: They needed to think about keeping their colleagues safe from COVID-19. Since spring, they’ve tried to position their unions as key decision-makers not only on redesigning school, but also on when and how to offer in-person classes again. 

In many places, they are succeeding. Along with health guidance, getting buy-in from teachers unions will be a significant factor for when and how school districts eventually start offering in-person classes again, said Brad Marriano, an education professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Read the full story here.

—Dahlia Bazzaz, Manuel Villa

'This was such a disaster,' SPS parent says

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 parent Amanda Stanley.

I'd love to shine a little daylight on the mess that was our first day at Robert Eagle Staff Middle School.

I'm sharing my experience, the download from our PTA Facebook group, and reports from our daughter's friends and their parents.

Our kids were supposed to have a two-hour "social-emotional support" session. Many of the kids (including mine) couldn't join one of the two 350-plus-person Microsoft Teams meetings. We spent half an hour trying to get in and then gave up. My child was in tears.

I'm now glad she couldn't join. Somehow all the kids had admin privileges so they muted the teacher and unmuted themselves. The word I heard was "cacophony." No one could hear.

The meeting chat was full of irrelevant and abusive comments. Some kids shared links to porn websites in the chat. The meeting was apparently ended. A new meeting link was supposed to be sent out, but I didn't see a single student or teacher share that they got one.

Oh, the irony of the "social-emotional support" session causing emotional meltdowns. 

This was such a disaster and so predictably so.

Editor's Note: Marni Campbell, principal at Robert Eagle Staff, sent an email Friday afternoon to staff, parents and guardians apologizing for the content shared in the chat.

"Unfortunately a few students introduced content and language that is not welcome in our community," she wrote.

"Please know that our students' safety and well-being are our primary concern, and we are very sorry for the exposure to things that are not appropriate and are potentially damaging to our students."

Campbell said, "at this time we do not have the ability to end chats in Teams," and said the school will follow up with the students involved and redesign meetings "to ensure that this does not happen again."

—Michelle Baruchman
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'We can do better than this,' says SPS parent

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 parent Michelle Caulfield.

I had appreciated the “strong start” focus on getting comfortable with new tools and technologies prior to Seattle Public Schools’ academic start on Sept. 14.

I really feel for the teachers. My son's north-end middle school kicked-off with a series of two-hour Microsoft Teams meetings.

It was a BIG group and from what I could tell, it didn't appear to be moderated. Chats were flying and many kids were unmuted. No one used the “hand raise” feature. A video shown couldn't stream properly.

After 45 minutes, students were told to stay on only if they had specific questions. My son logged off and that was that.

Our school community just got an email from the principal about an incident where one or more students posted inappropriate/obscene chats during one of the meetings and teachers could not moderate, mute or stop it. We can do better than this.

—Michelle Baruchman

Parents: Technical help is on the way to help you navigate school sites

If you’re a parent who’s struggling to log on to monitor your child’s schoolwork, or if you're in the dark about how to double-check whether an assignment has been submitted, you’re not alone.

How to log on and where to go for technical help are among the most frequently asked questions by parents trying to navigate the new normal for the 2020-21 school year, said Amber McCullogh, executive director of K-postsecondary for Puget Sound Educational Service District.

The state’s nine educational service districts, which provide support and technical assistance to local school districts, are working on lessons to help parents make sense of learning online and oversee the work their children are doing. These modules, or mini-lessons, will be available later this month online.

They’ll help teach parents how to log in to their school's “learning platform,” such as Google Classroom, and how to make sure assignments are being turned in on time.

Puget Sound Educational Service District is creating modules to familiarize parents with the five most commonly used learning platforms: Google Classroom, Schoology, Microsoft Teams, Seesaw and Canvas.

They’re also translating the modules from English into eight languages: Ukranian, Russian, Farsi, Tagalog, French, Arabic, Somali, Vietnamese and Spanish.

McCullogh said parents who need this information now should reach out to their teacher, principal or school district to get help. When the modules are rolled out, they’ll be distributed by the school districts, rather than the ESDs.

—Katherine Long

A back-to-school treat: pillowy cinnamon rolls

Here's my favorite recipe for the most delectable, gooey cinnamon rolls, those made of pure, pillowy goodness. Let’s just say that when these beauties came out of the oven, both the Americans and French had frosting and crumbs guiltily spread across their faces.

This recipe is a perfect before-school breakfast treat. You can make the rolls the night before and reheat; they’re still amazing.

Get the recipe here.

—Sadie Davis-Suskind
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Power outages cause school closures for Federal Way, Sumner-Bonney Lake and Puyallup Public Schools

Citing internet access challenges due to local power outages, school districts in Federal Way, Sumner-Bonney Lake and Puyallup have canceled their instruction plans for the day.

Access to school buildings will be closed.

Federal Way Public Schools and Sumner-Bonney Lake were scheduled to return Tuesday for the first day back to school online. The Puyallup School District went back Sept. 3.

Strong wind gusts in Western Washington have knocked down power lines, triggering outages that have affected South King County and parts of Pierce County.

The districts have contacted Puget Sound Energy but did not have an estimated time of repair.

Additional information will be provided through district listservs and websites.

—Michelle Baruchman

Remote learning during COVID-19 has Seattle-area parents learning their own limits

For the last several mornings, Nikeya McAdory has been fretting about how she is going to navigate the new school year with her three children: Virtual learning, homework, follow-up, free time, meals, bedtime. Repeat.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m trying,” McAdory said from her home in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, where she has set up desks for her two older children, 14-year-old Dennis, a freshman at Cleveland High School; and 11-year-old Dylann, a fifth-grader at Graham Hill Elementary. McAdory has made a smaller space for her 6-year-old daughter, Karter, a first-grader at Graham Hill.

“I know once school starts, I am not going to be OK,” said McAdory, a single mother who is taking time off from her dental-assistant job to tend to her kids. “I’m sure I am going to be overwhelmed.”

There’s been a lot of discussion about how kids are managing the so-called new normal; whether they are learning anything, or if this period in their educational history is a total wash. And there are the social setbacks. Missing friends, activities, and the traditions that shape the school experience, and their lives.

But parents, too, are suffering; trying to balance loving and raising their kids, serving as teachers and support staff, setting up classroom spaces, monitoring learning, checking homework and urging them to stay on track. All this, while also working and running a home that feels a little smaller every day.

Read the full story here.

—Nicole Brodeur

Seattle students head back to school: ‘I felt so proud of these tenacious and patient students’

Seattle Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, kicked off its “soft start” to school Friday. Glitches made for a bumpy morning in some homes. Students here and elsewhere have been away from school buildings for nearly six months. And while the district is slated to return to full remote instruction on Sept. 14, there are no immediate plans to resume learning in-person.

On Friday, students spent a few hours 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 their teacher’s or classmates’ voices.

“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. 

Later in the day, Superintendent Denise Juneau wrote that the district’s technology department planned to update systems on all district-issued devices. “Today’s experience with technology is exactly why we are implementing the Strong Start week,” she wrote. “This week gives us time to test out the technology, work out the issues, and focus on relationships and building community.”

The Seattle Times collected dispatches from children and educators to gain a window into how the start to an unprecedented new school year — amid a global pandemic and national racial justice movements — unfolded. These glimpses paint a mixed picture of delight when things went to plan — and frustration, when technical problems kept children and teachers from connecting online.

Read the full story here.

—Katherine Long, Hannah Furfaro, Dahlia Bazzaz, and Scott Greenstone
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Catch up on the latest back-to-school news

  • 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. Rain or shine.
  • Seattle Public Schools got off to a bumpy start, with some technical glitches as students tried to enter their online platforms.
  • 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 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