It’s back-to-school time in the Seattle area. In spring.
On Monday, the first of Gov. Jay Inslee’s two deadlines for school districts to offer in-person instruction takes effect. For districts like Seattle, it will mark the day many elementary-school teachers across Seattle will begin meeting their students for the very first time.
Last Friday, at Loyal Heights Elementary School in Ballard, school employees put the finishing touches on buildings and classrooms, speaking among each other like theater workers readying the stage before a big show. Outside the entrance in the late afternoon, a gaggle of parents and kids stood around waiting for student portraits.
“We’re gonna have more people than we expected,” Lauren Molloy-Johnson, an instructional assistant, said aloud to her colleagues, who were marking Xs with tape on the cement near the playground to indicate where students should stand and meet their teachers.
Kelsey Jackson, a Loyal Heights kindergarten teacher, sorted picture books on a small shelf at the front of her classroom, where she’s decorated the walls with pink and blue tissue paper flowers she made by hand.
She’s ready and excited to teach in-person, remarking that she’s not a “virtual person.” She’s fielded texts and phone calls from parents, helping assuage their concerns and answer questions about how school will look. All but one of her students will be returning in-person.
“I want to teach them how to love school,” Jackson said. She plans to share a story she wrote with her students on the first day. It’s about how “the class is a family, and how school is different right now, and that it’s OK.”
After a scramble by schools to respond to the reopening deal approved by the district and the teachers union a little more than a week ago, around 58% of elementary-school families surveyed by the district said their kids will be back in classes for half-days. That deal created the schedule for classes and added more safety protocols for buildings.
Tens of thousands of families have chosen to have their students learn remotely for the rest of the year. Some are making the choice for safety reasons, some for health reasons, and some for logistical ones; the district isn’t providing yellow-bus transportation for all students who normally qualify for it, creating a barrier for working parents. And even for parents who could give their kids a ride, many say the short class times don’t merit uprooting schedules this late in the year, especially when they have found other child care arrangements.
“At this point, I can’t juggle this right now,” said Shauna Robinson, a parent of three children who lives in South Seattle. Two of her children are enrolled with a child care provider. “If it were new, if it were September … it’d be different. But it’s not worth it for me to put kids back in physical school if it’s just for two hours here and there,” she said, adding that she wasn’t aware of any additional safety protocols the district had for transitioning kids to before- and after-care.
Loyal Heights has been open to some students with disabilities for months now, and many teachers had been using their classrooms to teach remotely.
The school, where 7.9% of students come from low-income backgrounds, has a high percentage of students returning for in-person instruction: 87% of the 460 students opted for the 2-hour, 45 minute sessions four times a week.
Fourth-grade teacher Brandon Vaagsland said she plans some activities to build community in her classroom, and then hand out assessments to get a better picture of where they stand in math and reading. By the end of the year, she wants students to have mastered fractions and know how to write a five-paragraph essay.
It’s been a scramble over the past week to adapt her lessons to the new schedule, which splits students into afternoon and morning groups. But she said she’s eager to see the students without distractions.
“Earlier my class and I were talking about things we were not gonna miss, and then as one of the kids is talking, he gets booted off the call,” Vaagsland said, laughing.
It’s a strange feeling to be making all these preparations in the building for students in the spring, said Michael Berkenwald, principal of the school.
But some parts, he said, he predicts will still feel the same: the excitement of children arriving, and the tearful goodbyes between kindergartners and their parents.