Editor’s note: This is a live account of back-to-school updates from Wednesday, Sept. 9 as the day unfolded. It is no longer being updated. Click here to see all the most recent news about the new school year.

All remaining school districts in Washington state return to the classroom — online or in person — Wednesday.

So far, school has had a rocky start. When things go according to plan, it’s a delight. But when technical problems keep children and teachers from connecting, or when video chatting is interrupted by background disturbances or inappropriate messaging, things can go awry and cause frustration.

We’ve enjoyed spending the school day with you over the past week. We’ll be closing out our live blog at the end of the day today, but the conversation will continue beyond this space. We invite you to continue sending us your school updates at educationlab@seattletimes.com. And we may reach out to you throughout this unusual school year.

Throughout Wednesday 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 Tuesday can be found here, and our back-to-school coverage can be found here.

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.

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.

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.

—The Columbian

Khan Academy’s Sal Khan shares advice for online learning: Do less, and turn off the camera

For the past 12 years, Salman Khan has been touting online learning as the future of education. But even he didn’t imagine us crashing into that future so suddenly and with little time to prepare.

Now millions of schools are starting the fall semester with distance learning over laptops and tablets to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus, while many others have started with a hybrid of in-person and online learning. Teachers, parents and kids are figuring out what works or doesn’t, fumbling and adjusting along the way. Khan hopes to help guide them.

Khan is the founder of the nonprofit Khan Academy, a collection of online learning tools and video classes for kids that he started in 2008 after successfully tutoring his own cousins over video. In 2014, he started an in-person school in Silicon Valley called the Khan Labs School, which has also had to make the switch to online classes this month.

In the spring, after schools began closing down, usage of Khan Academy’s free online tools was up 300 percent with more than 30 million kids using them, according to Khan. He sees similar patterns already and thinks the final number could be far higher this semester, as more schools start with more fleshed out plans for teaching.

We asked Khan about the limitations and risks of remote learning, his advice for making the most of it and if it’s okay to push back against demanding schedules.

Read the full interview here.

—The Washington Post

First Day of School: Des Moines Elementary

Zubayr Dahir, listens attentively to his first ZOOM class meeting while attending to his first day of first grade at Des Moines Elementary. (Courtesy Usame Dahir)
Zubayr Dahir, listens attentively to his first ZOOM class meeting while attending to his first day of first grade at Des Moines Elementary. (Courtesy Usame Dahir)

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

First day of school — ever — for Highline kindergartners

Stephanie Moeller leaned in close to her computer’s camera to make sure her students could read the board behind her.

“Good morning kindergartners. Today is Wednesday, Sept. 9th. It is the first day of school. I am so excited to be your teacher. Love, Miss Moeller,” it read.

Teachers and students across the Highline School District kicked off the new school year Wednesday: Students sat in front of screens at home, but many teachers including Moeller returned to their classrooms to give their students some sense of normalcy during an otherwise unprecedented school season.

On Wednesday, Moeller, a Marvista Elementary kindergarten teacher, started with a digital version of classroom etiquette. She held up colorful cards to give her students cues when they should unmute themselves or end their Zoom call.

Tiny faces, many framed by oversized headphones, appeared on screens. A few immediately took to this new version of school. Others had a slower start: Twin sisters with braids sat next to each other and quietly took it all in as Moeller began a lesson about using crayons.

When to use them: to write, to draw, to color. When not to?

Moeller took a crayon and scribbled all over a piece of paper before holding it up for her class. “Scribbling is for babies. We're not babies right?” she said. A few high-pitched giggles floated across the airwaves from her students’ kitchens and living rooms. One of the twins began sipping from a juice box.

Next up: learning to use scissors. “Open shut, open shut. That’s the way we cut, cut, cut!” Moeller sang. Every now and then, a parent’s head popped into view.

By mid-morning, another student arrived on screen. Her family hadn’t received an email to login.

The other children were ready to catch the girl up, and mimicked Moeller as she showed the late arrival how to listen and stay attentive from home.
“She’s good to go,” Moeller said as the girl’s mom disappeared from view.

—Hannah Furfaro

Washington districts are being cautious about restarting school face-to-face

When it comes to bringing kids back into the classroom, most of Washington’s 300 public school districts are being fairly careful.

Only about 60 are doing any form of in-person education, and most are teaching remotely, even though the number of COVID-19 cases in Washington state has been dropping in recent weeks. Some private schools have chosen to go back in person, or outdoors.

Joel Aune, director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, said the state’s districts are being more cautious than districts in many neighboring states, a conservative approach which mirrors the caution that Gov. Jay Inslee has counseled in dealing with the virus, Aune said.

“There’s intense pressure from communities right now to get kids back in school, but when it comes to making those decisions, boy, we sure encourage superintendents to give the heaviest consideration to what health experts are saying,” he said. The association encourages superintendents to follow the recommendations of the local health jurisdiction.

Aune, who previously served as superintendent of Snoqualmie Valley School District, said districts must consider potential risks from lawsuits. All districts carry liability insurance, but there’s a maximum amount of payout from a claim. If a student or teacher got sick or died, and a jury decided a school district displayed willful negligence in opening classes during a pandemic, the financial impact “could be devastating,” Aune said.

His recommendation: “If people want kids back in school, they need to put on a mask and wash their hands.”

Aune is also taking one bit of wisdom away from remote learning — the realization that classes can go on even when kids can’t get to school, whether the reason is a virus or the weather.

“We’ll never have another snow day again,” he predicted.

—Katherine Long

Financial assistance for groceries are available to qualifying families

Families who need extra money to buy groceries are eligible for an emergency school meals program as part of the pandemic relief program, still open for applications.

Families who qualify will receive a one-time payment up to $399 per child. Like a debit card, families can pay for groceries at most grocery stores.

All students in Washington attending a K-12 school that provides school lunch during the year are eligible for the program, regardless of immigration status. Applicants will not be asked about citizenship.

Students must be eligible for a free or reduced-price school meal or attend a school that provides free meals to all students.

The Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To apply, visit WashingtonConnection.org or call 877-501-2233. Translators are available.

Applications are due this Friday by 5 p.m.

—Michelle Baruchman

Clarkston launches new program to support families who home-school

The Clarkston School District has received approval from the state of Washington to open a new K-12 school to help meet the needs of families who choose to home-school their children.

Lessons through Clarkston Home Alliance, the district’s new public school, will be parent-instructed and parent-driven, but those who enroll in the program will be able to access additional support from the district.

“We want this experience to provide families a partnership with the Clarkston School District where they get flexibility and choice, while we provide curriculum, support, enrichment activities and a state approved high school diploma,” said Michelle Nicholas, the instructor of the program, in a news release.

Nicholas, a former teacher at Heights Elementary School, will work with as many as 40 students and their families.

Parents will be able to use an online curriculum provided through the district, or they can choose to use another curriculum as long as it meets state standards.

Clarkston, in rural Eastern Washington, is one of 60 school districts in Washington that is going back to school face-to-face for at least part of the week

Troy Whittle, the district’s assistant superintendent and executive director of teaching and learning, said students in the program will also be able to participate in sports, extracurricular activities and classes offered through the district’s brick-and-mortar schools.

Read the full story here.

—Lewiston Tribune, Idaho

Vancouver Public Schools furloughs, reduces hours for hundreds of employees

Vancouver Public Schools will furlough hundreds of classified employees and reduce hours for others due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The school board unanimously approved temporary layoffs for 447 employees and reduced hours for another 182. The cuts affect bus drivers, secretaries, clerks, food service workers, paraeducators and district security officers. Special education paraeducators will not be affected by the cuts.

The employees will receive two weeks of notice beginning Wednesday. Furloughed employees will keep their health benefits and be eligible for unemployment.

The reductions will take effect Sept. 23, but district officials say they hope to begin bringing staff back as students return for in-person instruction. If public health data suggests a return is safe, elementary-aged students could begin returning to the classroom part-time as soon as Sept. 29.

“These reductions are gut-wrenchingly painful,” Superintendent Steve Webb said. “I wish none of them were necessary. These employees are friends, colleagues and champions for children.”

Read the full story here.

—The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

First-day teacher jitters happen even when class is online

When school started last week at Sartori Elementary in Renton, it didn’t matter that everything was being conducted online. Second-grade teacher Clemisha Davis had the first-day jitters — just as if her students were showing up in person, rather than on a Zoom screen.

This week, four days after the start of school, Davis said the new year already seems different from spring’s hastily-pulled-together classroom lessons. Most of her students are showing up to class. Assignments aren’t optional. “It feels so different from spring,” she said.

As for her students, “the kids are a little shy,” she said, although that’s typical of the first days of school. But “it’s harder to get them to know each other” through a computer screen, she said.

Davis was one of more than 100 educators in the Renton School District who were part of a steering committee to reimagine what the school year would be like. The teachers swapped ideas about keeping kids engaged, supporting social-emotional learning, and weaving lessons about antiracism into learning this year.

When class was in person and her students were sitting in front of her on the carpet, one of Davis’s common teaching techniques was to ask her students to turn around and talk through an idea with their neighbor. As her students talked, she’d lean over and listen, offering guidance. Now, she has to replicate those conversations using Zoom “breakout rooms,” which are like an extension of a video chat. She’s finding those breakout rooms a good way for kids to get to know each other, she said.

Davis is also amazed by the types of technology her kids are already learning — touch typing, creating a text box in a Google slide, navigating around the learning platform on their computers. “I’m excited to see what happens next -- we’re introducing our kids to technology a little sooner,” she said.

Davis has personal experience to share with virtual learning. She took classes to earn her master’s degree largely online, and she’s familiar with the challenges of building a community online.

Doing everything virtually is both exciting and nerve-wracking, she said. “There's the excitement of being back in school, and having a schedule,” she said. And there’s anxiety, especially among parents, “because you aren’t sure of what your kid can actually do.”

—Katherine Long

First Day of School: Wedgwood Elementary

Reese Rorabaugh is in Second Grade at Wedgwood Elementary School, in the Seattle Public School District.  (Courtesy of Jennifer Rorabaugh / )
Reese Rorabaugh is in Second Grade at Wedgwood Elementary School, in the Seattle Public School District. (Courtesy of Jennifer Rorabaugh / )

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

  • The first day back to school for districts was a delight when things went to plan — and full of frustration, when technical problems kept children and teachers from connecting online.
  • Teachers unions have become key decision-makers not only on hours, pay and class sizes, but also on when and how to offer in-person classes again. 
  • 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, 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.
  • 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