Editor’s note: This is a live account of back-to-school updates from Wednesday, Sept. 2, as the day unfolded. It is no longer being updated. Click here to see all the most recent news about the new school year.

A new school year is already underway for some students in Washington state, and more will be returning in-person and online this week.

Wednesday marks the return for 59 school districts, including Centralia, Mercer Island, Mukilteo, Northshore, Renton, and Tukwila. Some private and tribal schools are also returning. Across the state, about 94% of students will begin the year learning remotely.

After schools were closed this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, students, teachers and administrators are preparing for a new school year while hoping to avoid last semester’s issues.

However, key concerns are still unresolved. There are questions about access to reliable internet, particularly for people who live in rural areas; how to catch up on units that students may not have fully absorbed; and how to ensure safety precautions, particularly for older employees who are vulnerable to the symptoms of the virus.

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. All of our back-to-school coverage can be found here.

Seattle Public Schools apologizes after sending a premature voicemail about start of school to families

In a move that briefly confused families at the start of an already complex school year, Seattle Public Schools mistakenly sent out a voicemail Wednesday evening that stated school would restart the following morning, even though students aren’t expected back until Friday.

“School for first through 12th grade students will begin tomorrow, September 4. … Please know that we are committed to doing whatever it takes to help all students have a strong start to the school year, no matter the circumstances,” district superintendent Denise Juneau said in the message.

Students in first through 12th grade are not scheduled to return to school until Friday, Sept. 4. Those in Pre-K and kindergarten will return Tuesday, Sept. 8.

In the initial voicemail, Juneau also reminded families that the first week of school will be dedicated to teaching students how to use the new technology they’re distributing, including a device for every student, and building community through the online platform. Regular instruction is supposed to start Sept. 14.

Read the full story here.

—Elise Takahama

With temperature checks and masks, Skagit County schools are back in session

CONWAY — The first day of the school year Tuesday at Conway School in Skagit County was filled with sights familiar and new.

On the familiar side: teachers and administrators greeting students; young students asking which room to head toward; and parents dropping kids off early in the morning.

On the new side: the teachers and administrators wore masks and face shields; every student wore a mask; and the parents doing drop-off had their temperatures checked as they waited in their cars.

This fall, a limited number of Conway students will be involved in in-person learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday saw the school’s first-graders in the building, along with students in the special education and migrant education programs. There were about 40 students total.

Read the full story here.

—Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Wash.

Clark County educators, students connect virtually for first day of school despite pandemic

There was no small amount of tears, forgotten passwords and fizzling microphones as tens of thousands of Clark County students returned to the virtual classroom Tuesday.

It was the first day of school for Clark County’s largest school districts, Vancouver and Evergreen public schools, as well as several outlying districts. Teachers and staff welcomed their students back from empty classrooms and home offices as the coronavirus pandemic prevented a return to campus.

These are the stories of teachers, students and staff connecting on a first day of school like no other.

Read the full story here.

—The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Biden slams Trump as absent in the ‘national emergency’ of schooling in the pandemic

Joe Biden, aiming to refocus the presidential race back to the coronavirus pandemic, denounced President Trump’s approach to reopening schools in the midst of the outbreak and accused the president of being absent in the face of a “national emergency.”

“If President Trump and his administration had done their jobs early on with this crisis, America’s schools would be open and would be open safely,” Biden said in a speech in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday. “Instead, American families all across this country are paying the price for his failures.”

The schools dilemma has taken on added resonance as the start of the academic year approaches, and families across the country are contending with a patchwork of approaches, from in-person instruction to virtual learning. Many parents and educators have been torn between their worries about contagion, and the downsides of keeping children at home, including socialization and developmental harm, inequities in remote instruction and the difficulty for adults to balance work and child care.

Read the full story here.

—Los Angeles Times

More than 94% of public school students in Washington state learning remotely this fall, new data shows

More than 94% of Washington state public school kids beginning classes this month are doing so almost entirely remotely, according to new data from the state education department.

The numbers, which the state said were current as of last Friday, are the first official account of how the state’s 300-plus school districts, charter schools and tribal compact schools planned to resume teaching after a summer of constant tinkering with reopening plans.

It comes about a month after Gov. Jay Inslee and other state officials declared it was unsafe for the vast majority of schools to reopen their buildings given the coronavirus case counts in their communities. At the time of announcement, the state Department of Health (DOH) unveiled a long-awaited guide to help districts decide what approach to take based on their county’s case numbers.

Read the full story here.

—Dahlia Bazzaz

Share your photos from the first day of school with us

Send your photos from the first day of school to edlab@seattletimes.com, and we may feature them in our live updates.

—Michelle Baruchman

Biden focuses on schools and pandemic, then to visit Kenosha

WILMINGTON, Del. — Joe Biden is hammering President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak ahead of a planned trip to Wisconsin, a pivotal swing state that’s become a focal point for political debate over protest-related violence, police treatment of people of color and the actions of vigilante militias.

Biden’s itinerary reflects his efforts to keep the election spotlight on the president’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s overall security, while Trump emphasizes civil unrest in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Biden will be visiting Kenosha on Thursday, where there have been protests following the wounding of a Black man, Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back by police as he was trying to get into a car while police were trying to arrest him.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, Biden and his wife, Jill, a longtime community college professor and former high school teacher, are meeting with public health experts in their home town of Wilmington, Delaware, to talk about school reopening options. Then Biden will deliver remarks – his second speech in three days to excoriate Trump – outlining his ideas and accusing the president of making the country less safe.

The Wilmington event is the latest in a series of dueling efforts by Trump and Biden to cast the other as a threat to Americans’ day-to-day security. It serves to highlight their vastly different arguments, with Trump using “law and order” as his rallying cry and Biden pushing a broad referendum on Trump’s competence.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

Health centers will open at 34 schools this month

Although most schools have started the school year online, health centers will open on 34 school campuses in King County this month to provide health services for students, including mental health counseling, flu shots and other vaccines. Some sites will also have dental services.

Services are available to any enrolled student in participating school districts.

The health centers will operate at 27 Seattle Public Schools, and five additional centers will serve students in the Bellevue, Highline, Renton and Vashon school districts. Two new centers will open at Lowell Elementary and at Nova High School in Seattle.

Public Health — Seattle & King County directly operates three of the 34 clinic locations, which are based inside schools or on school campuses. All the others staffed and operated by community health-care providers.

These centers are partially funded by the voter-approved Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy in Seattle. Other cities fund the centers in part by the voter-approved Best Starts for Kids Levy.

—Michelle Baruchman

Virus or not, it’s time for class again across Europe

While many U.S. school districts started class online only and others have introduced a mix of online and face-to-face learning, in-person class is the norm as Europe goes back to school. Governments are trying to show that life goes on despite a virus that has infected at least 25 million people worldwide and killed more than 850,000.

In Britain, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson sent a letter to parents saying school “really is the best place for them to be. Nothing can match being in a classroom with a real teacher to inspire them.”

Hundreds of thousands of British schoolchildren are heading to classrooms this week, with parents facing fines if they refuse to send their kids back. To reduce contact, schools are staggering break times and keeping pupils in “bubbles” with their class.

The World Health Organization acknowledged Monday that while the virus remains a threat, school closures have hurt children’s mental health and social development, especially those from low-income families, with disabilities or who are in an abusive home environment.

“We cannot let children become the hidden victims of this pandemic by denying them the opportunities they so fundamentally deserve,” WHO Europe said.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

How will Seattle-area students cope with a return to online schooling?

Parents, who are again thrust onto the front lines of their children’s education and caregiving this fall, are also stepping into another critical role: mental health responders.

Schools, which have long been an important gateway to mental health care, say they understand the weight families feel, and are attempting to respond in kind.

Officials at many local districts, including Seattle, Bellevue and Lake Washington, say they are focusing the start of the school year on students’ well-being.

Researchers are working quickly to understand the pandemic’s effects on children’s mental health, beyond what’s already known: Children are facing isolation and uncertainty about their futures. Some, with rough home lives or other stressors, have little solace or space to escape.

“There’s a particular concern about our young people and the fact that there aren’t as many eyes on kids,” said Jennifer Stuber, center director for Forefront Suicide Prevention. “It’s almost like there’s this shift to be focusing more on the caregivers and the parents and preparing them,” to help their children.

Read the full story about how researchers and schools are trying to head off a potential mental health crisis among the state’s children.

—Hannah Furfaro

Reykdal will answer questions during webinar Wednesday

Got a question for the state schools chief about what the 2020-21 school year will be like? In a free webinar at 12:30 today, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal will discuss the status of Washington schools and then take questions from the audience.

Registration is required; here’s the link. The webinar will be moderated by Arik Korman, communications director for the League of Education Voters.

—Katherine Long

Child care, teen services available through city of Seattle

Families can access child care through Seattle Parks and Recreation at 19 sites throughout the city.

Capacity is available for 550 elementary-age children, and providers will support students' virtual learning. A full list of child care sites is available here.

Registration is open and scholarships are available to those who qualify. Families can register for full or partial week child care by visiting www.seattle.gov/parks, clicking on “Sign Up for Classes, Activities & More” and then under Activities, clicking “licensed child care.”

The program begins Sept. 8 and will run between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Administrators will conduct temperature checks upon entry, regular cleaning and sanitation, and require masks to be worn by staff and children.

Wi-Fi will be available at all sites. Seattle Public Schools will provide students in need with computers and tablets.

The Parks Department is also launching seven Teen Resource Hubs, which will provide internet access, connections to adults, referrals for mental health resources, and basic needs and space to do online learning.

These hubs, which can support 200 students daily, are at the following sites:

  • Southwest Teen Life Center
  • Miller Community Center
  • Garfield Teen Life Center
  • Meadowbrook Teen Life Center
  • Magnuson Community Center
  • Bitterlake Community Center
  • South Lake High School

The teen program also begins Sept. 8 and will run between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Lunch will be provided daily.

Registration at www.seattle.gov/parks, which opens Wednesday, is required.

—Michelle Baruchman

Why districts are being conservative when it comes to reopening schools

In early August, when Gov. Jay Inslee, schools superintendent Chris Reykdal and state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said it was unsafe for most Washingtonians to go back to school, they offered guidance but didn’t mandate closures, allowing districts to make their own decisions.

Still, it can be a tough choice. In the town of Clarkston, in Eastern Washington, Superintendent Thaynan Knowlton said if a district opens against the advice of its local health officials, it could be vulnerable to a lawsuit if someone gets sick or dies. The district started school Aug. 26 on a hybrid schedule, with about half the kids in school most days.

The small district can’t afford to take on risk. Last year, a looming budget shortfall forced the Clarkston School Board to trim 25 positions, cutting $2 million. The district has tried and failed three times in the last nine years to pass a construction bond to rebuild parts of the aging, 98-year-old high school.

Asotin County, where Clarkston is located, has a handful of cases now. Last week, after school started, Knowlton said he was pleased to see that masking-up hasn’t been a debate in Clarkston schools, as it has been in neighboring Idaho. Students were complying, sometimes with a little urging to keep their masks over their noses, and only a few kids showed up without them.

Knowlton praised his teaching staff for being “highly collaborative, open to working with me and trying to find some middle ground between completely shutting down and completely opening up.”

The district is trying to find a way to keep teachers safe, while also serving the community, he said. “It’s a balancing act. We hope we’re doing it right.”

—Katherine Long

New initiative aims to provide students in need with technological devices, access

Thousands of students in Washington may be eligible to receive tablets, laptops and other digital devices as well as access to internet hot spots and technological support to close the digital divide and help with remote learning, thanks to a new philanthropic initiative coordinated among local groups.

Microsoft donated 300 Surface devices, and the Seattle Seahawks Charitable Foundation donated funding for internet hot spots at the Boys & Girls Club of King County, which will provide space and support to students learning virtually as part of the new Digital Equity Initiative to address disparities in technology access.

The initiative is facilitated by the Seattle Foundation and All In WA, a coordinated effort between nonprofit groups, businesses and community leaders to support workers and families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. All In WA launched in May with a goal of raising $65 million to address food shortages and health disparities, and provide housing and small business assistance.

Microsoft is designating $1.25 million from its All In Washington pledge to kick-start the fund, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has pledged to match individual donations up to $1 million per unique donor.

Puget Sound Energy has contributed $200,000 to support fundraising efforts, and the Seahawks Charitable Foundation is contributing $120,000. The new NHL team, the Seattle Kraken, will promote the program through its social media.

Funding from the initiative will be distributed through InvestED, a statewide nonprofit that partners with over 600 secondary schools across Washington to provide need-based funding. InvestED will work with the Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and other agencies to identify students most in need.

OSPI, using federal CARES Act funds, is providing nearly $9 million to connect families with low incomes across Washington with internet access. The initiative will supplement OSPI efforts.

“School looks different this year, and we must ensure that each and every child has the tools they need to learn in a remote setting. If we fail to close gaps in digital access, we risk leaving thousands of students behind,” said Joyce Walters, executive director of InvestED.

—Michelle Baruchman

Share your back-to-school photos with us

We want to see your picture-perfect back-to-school photos — whether you're in the classroom or at your dining room table.

Email your snapshots to educationlab@seattletimes.com. Make sure you have permission to share the photo and send it in the highest quality format you can.

—Michelle Baruchman

Catch up on the latest back-to-school news

  • 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 with us dispatches from your experiences throughout the first week of school.

Each day, send an email to educationlab@seattletimes.com with about 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