Students are asking for stronger safety protocols from Seattle Public Schools after an uptick in school closures this week because of COVID-19 — and their demands have caught the attention of district leaders, who are starting to make changes.

More than 100 Seattle students rallied outside the district headquarters in Sodo late Friday morning. They spoke about how much stress they have been experiencing during the school year and the need to feel safe in schools again.

“Personally I feel like I’ve been on a yearlong roller coaster ride,” said Delano Cordova, a senior at Franklin High School. “The coronavirus pandemic is only one stress factor that students have had to deal with this year.”

On top of homework, college applications and abrupt school closures, students have also had to worry about the recent threats of violence that have shut Seattle schools or resulted in lockdowns, Cordova said.

Seattle Schools leaders say they are already working to make the changes that students are asking for. Educators are reaching out to students to get a better understanding of their needs, Superintendent Brent Jones said.

“A lot of the things the students were talking about are things we’ve actually considered,” Jones said in an interview after the rally. “We want to continue to uplift their voice and understand what their needs are. We are overjoyed that they want to come and express themselves.”

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One of the student demands is for the district to provide a “safe space” for students and educators after traumatic instances occur — for example, time for students and staff to debrief, process and talk about the threats rather than just returning to class right away after a lockdown occurs. They’re asking for more mental health resources for students, teachers and the community.

Students also want Seattle Schools to be more transparent about the number of COVID-19 cases it would take to close a school. 

“Students don’t feel safe in school, students feel like our voices aren’t being heard,” said Rena Mateja, a senior at Cleveland High and a member of the NAACP Youth Council. “Educators have been putting their livelihoods on the line just to keep us safe. When we walk into the building, we shouldn’t have to worry about dying, we shouldn’t have to worry about gun threats or anything like that.”

Students also want Gov. Jay Inslee to change a state requirement that districts teach 180 days of in-person instruction each school year. Students want more remote learning options and are asking Seattle Schools to set up a meeting with Inslee. 

Seattle School Board President Brandon Hersey, who attended the rally, said in an interview that he is willing to try to set up a meeting with the governor. He said it’s important that Inslee hear directly from students.

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“It’s got to be student-led,” Hersey said. “That’s the only way to see long-term change.”

Students at Franklin High School have made a list of their own demands, and some aren’t planning to show up to school on Tuesday if they are not met. Franklin High was closed Monday and Tuesday and pivoted to remote learning on Wednesday. School is set to resume in-person Tuesday. (Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is a district holiday.)

Franklin students are demanding the district provide N 95 masks, conduct weekly testing for students and staff, and offer vaccines and booster shots at their school. 

The district will receive a shipment of hundreds of thousands of N 95 or KN 95 masks as early as next week, said deputy superintendent Rob Gannon. There wasn’t a supply of higher-quality masks immediately available, and Seattle Schools worked with King County and the state to get these masks, he said.

“We’re also working with other partners in the city to see if we can secure masks as a second supply line or to get them even faster while we wait for the state’s delivery,” Gannon said. 

Seattle Schools is also starting a new testing program, test-to-stay, which allows students who are asymptomatic to stay in school with a regimen of testing, said Sarah Pritchett, assistant deputy superintendent in the office of strategy, deployment and response. The district was approved for the program, and it will start in two to three weeks at five schools that have lower vaccination rates.

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“Our biggest issue, as one of the biggest districts in the state, is labor,” Pritchett said. “It’s always going to be labor. How do we implement thousands and thousands of tests weekly? That’s a labor issue.”

The district has two clinics with rapid antigen tests for families and the community, Pritchett said. One opened in December and the other this month.

Classes were canceled in at least six schools in the district this week and at least nine schools have shifted to remote learning. Earlier this week, Seattle Schools released the factors that administrators use to decide if classes need to be canceled or return to remote learning.

The district will consider shifting to remote learning for 10 days if the student absence rate is approaching 50% at elementary schools, or if 10% of students and staff at a school have tested positive. 

If 40% of students at middle and high schools are absent, that could trigger a school to go remote for 10 days. If 10% of students in multiple classrooms test positive at middle and high schools, that could also trigger a 10-day remote learning period.  

If 25% of Seattle’s 106 schools are being taught remotely, the district would consider having the entire district go remote.

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