Thousands of Washington children are headed back to school this week — a majority of them remotely — but you’ll hear few firsthand accounts from our reporting team about what’s happening inside.
That’s because few local school district we asked allowed our team to sit in on students’ first days of class.
In the days leading up to this week, our reporters reached out to teachers and officials at Seattle, Highline, Bellevue, Lake Washington and Renton school districts.
Several district officials said they asked teachers to consider our request: We hoped to document this important historical moment for students and teachers who are facing an unprecedented and challenging school season.
But, many officials said, no teachers volunteered to participate. Other officials cited concerns about student privacy and technical issues. Some gave no reason. “Thank you for your interest. However, we are not allowing anyone but classroom teachers or school/district support staff to be a part of Zoom conferences with students,” an official for the Renton School District wrote.
When asked for an explanation, they wrote: “Zoom classes and conferences are not addressed in policy as this work is new (and, not every aspect of managing schools/classrooms can be addressed in policy). However, our work in policy and preference is to not disrupt the student day, while also maintaining student privacy.”
Highline, which begins school next week, responded to The Seattle Times on Friday saying it would allow reporters to witness its first day back. We are glad to have this opportunity.
First amendment scholars say schools have no legal obligation to allow journalists to observe classes — virtually or in person. But it’s good public policy to do so, said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. And a “huge element” of the back-to-school story is missed when reporters are barred from witnessing it.
“Journalism is often called the first draft of history and history is being written right now, on Zoom,” he said. “One of the major things that’s lost when journalists can’t get access to classes is the voice of students.”
Getting into schools is a challenge during non-pandemic times, too. Seattle Public Schools have denied some requests to sit in on classes from Seattle Times education reporter Dahlia Bazzaz over the years, citing unease from school administrators.
This year, the district’s spokesperson wrote: “I’m afraid we’re unable to help you. Once our educators (and students) have had more time to acclimate to this year’s remote learning, we can revisit the possibility.”
Some districts have written policies that prohibit visitors. Despite a prohibition on visitors during the early days of this school year, one district in Eastern Washington, Clarkston, allowed Education Lab reporter Katherine Long to witness its second day back for in-person learning last week. Clarkson Superintendent Thaynan Knowlton said he recognized his district could serve as a template for how to reopen schools in the rest of the state, and he was willing to let a reporter and photographer in to see how it worked. A few private schools and a charter school have also allowed us to visit.
And some teachers we spoke with said they are open to allowing journalists in their classrooms. One in Renton said she wanted the public to see how hard she and her colleagues were working.
We’re committed to bringing our readers stories about the new school year, and we’ve come up with a few solutions. We’ve asked teachers and families to send us dispatches throughout the week to give us a small window into their lives. We will share their experiences: what school at home looks like, emotions that bubble up, and unexpected challenges and successes they notice. But until we can observe schooling, we’ll still be missing a key ingredient.
We would like to hear from you, too. You can share your photos from your first day of school (in the highest quality format you can) or let us know what’s happening in your classroom by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seattle Times reporters Dahlia Bazzaz and Katherine Long contributed reporting.