On a drizzly Monday morning, Jeniffer Trice and four of her children put on raincoats and face masks, stepped outside their home and began the short walk to Bailey Gatzert Elementary School.
They couldn’t enter the building — that’s been out of the question since mid-March, when Seattle closed all of its schools to curb the coronavirus pandemic. As her kids waited near the parking lot, Trice, who is a member of the school’s building leadership team, picked up a thick sheaf of homework assignments from a table set up just outside the school’s front door, the last school work on the last week of the academic year.
A few members of the Bailey Gatzert staff came by, and for a moment, it seemed almost like a global health crisis hadn’t ripped at the fabric of this tight-knit school community. The boys greeted Mr. Dillon — Nicholas Dillon, a special-education teacher — with elbow bumps, and said hello to Mr. Black — Enrique Black, a popular fifth grade teacher. Trice chatted with two teachers about a free summer tutoring program.
As they started back home, she waved to another mom pulling up in a minivan. It almost felt like a normal day, on this last week of school, in a year that has been anything but normal.
In recent weeks, districts across the state have entered an intense planning period for next school year. Concerned about the possibility of a fresh wave of coronavirus cases this fall, they’re expecting to need to use a hybrid of in-person and online learning to keep the community healthy and safe from the virus. But many parents are still reeling from the year that just ended, when they had to adapt to their new roles as permanent substitute teachers while juggling work demands.
Trice, a single mom with five children, has her fingers crossed that more of the 2020-2021 school year happens in person. But because she has multiple sclerosis, she also worries about contracting the virus.
Trice was laid off from a contract job as a family engagement coordinator with Seattle University early in the pandemic. With schools shuttered, she became the full-time education guide for her children, who range in age from 4 to 14. At first, she had to manage this with only one desktop computer between them.
Now, she worries about what the transition to high school will be like for her oldest, Tytasia, who finished 8th grade this year, and middle school for Xavier, who finished fifth. She’s concerned that all of her children lost precious academic ground: Nehemiah, in sixth grade, who has autism and absorbs people’s emotions like a sponge; Jordan, second grade, who has a learning disability and trouble with fine motor skills; and the littlest, Mateo, who needs the most help because he’s too young to learn from a computer.
Like Trice, nearly 9 in 10 Washington parents are concerned about their children falling behind academically, according to a poll by Education Trust released in late May. Three out of four reported higher levels of stress than usual. The online poll surveyed 881 families statewide in late April, and mirrored the results of similar polls conducted in California, New York and Texas.
Harder on some families
The health crisis has been especially hard on families of color, according to the poll, and many fear that it is exacerbating inequality — though with a pause on some educational metrics, it’s hard to put a number to that concern.
The poll found that about 60% of white parents, parents who primarily speak English at home, and parents of students who do not have a disability report that their school is providing parents with regular contact or access to their child’s teacher. Only about half of Black parents, Latino parents, and parents who primarily speak another language at home, and parents of students with disabilities, reported getting the same support.
Those numbers likely reflect that low-income families and essential workers don’t have the resources (like internet or computer access), or can’t reach a teacher at an appointed time because they are working, said Lynn Jennings, senior director of national and state partnerships for Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for policies and practices to improve educational outcomes, particularly for students of color or those living in poverty.
About a quarter of parents who answered the poll said the assignments their children received were confusing or required additional explanation, and the nonprofit is calling on educators to make sure parents can understand and teach assignments.
“It’s a very painful time for parents,” said Adie Simmons, founder and executive director of Washington Family Engagement, a nonprofit that helps families from diverse backgrounds become more involved in their community’s schools. Parents have told Simmons they have newfound admiration for teachers, but also expressed “frustration over doing something they were never prepared to do” — that is, become their child’s co-teacher.
Very few parents have ever learned the instructional techniques that are part of teacher training, Simmons said. Her nonprofit believes there’s an urgent need to find ways to train parents because no one knows whether fall will bring a resurgence of cases, which could mean a fresh round of school closures and teaching-at-home. Nationwide and in some parts of Washington, the number of COVID-19 cases is growing.
Back in March, it seemed like a radical move when Seattle Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau announced the district would shut its doors for at least two weeks, sending kids home to try to curb the spread of the virus and joining other schools that had already made that decision. By April 6, Gov. Jay Inslee announced what had already started to seem inevitable: Across the state, school would not resume for face-to-face classes at least until fall.
When schools closed, Trice and her family were confined to their little townhouse on Spruce Street — three bedrooms for six people, barely enough room for living and schooling.
Seattle’s response to the pandemic evolved. At first, Juneau said the district wouldn’t try to teach kids at home because not all families had internet access, and because educators couldn’t switch to online teaching overnight. Instead, Seattle started broadcasting school lessons on cable TV.
But Trice found TV lessons were uneven at best. Some days, the sound didn’t work, and other days there were “these weird clips of physical education — there was no method to the madness,” she said. Eventually, the channel became background noise to the family.
Trice has been frustrated by Washington Middle School, where, she says, the teachers have been disengaged. Tytasia is a visual learner who relies on teachers as guides, Trice said. She had been having a strong year, but computer-based lessons weren’t engaging her. When she found out there would be no celebration for eighth-grade promotion, “she pretty much shut down,” Trice said. “She felt like she put in a lot of hard work not to be recognized.”
Trice has nothing but praise for Bailey Gatzert, where she feels like the staff has gone out of their way to work with Xavier and Jordan, adapting their lessons to meet the two boys’ needs. They have been thoughtful and attentive, she said.
Seattle schools spokesman Tim Robinson said in an email that he couldn’t speak to any one family’s experience, but that “the work our educators have been doing since our school buildings closed has been challenging and we are proud of our educators for rising to that challenge.”
In late March, the state education department released guidance that called on all school districts to provide some form of instruction starting March 30. With just the one desktop computer to use between five kids, Trice’s family began weekly walks to Bailey Gatzert for printed work sheets and assignments.
Then, through the district, she received three additional computers and one iPad. But the district’s learning management system, Schoology, was “overwhelming,” Trice said. By early June, she began walking back to the elementary school again to pick up paper assignments. It helped the kids feel bonded to the school, and Trice liked having the work sheets in hand so she could track assignments.
Developing a routine
As the school year progressed, the family settled into a routine. Each evening, she has the children choose where they’ll do their school work the next day: The small, round dining-room table by the window, the couch or the desk in the living room.
In the morning around 9 a.m., after she clears the kitchen table of breakfast and writes down everyone’s work assignments on a whiteboard, they get to work.
Every day at lunch, the kids come together for a virtual lunchroom and sharing experience called Munch. “We sit there and do it together — they have relaxing music,” she said. “It’s pretty cool.”
But on some days, the assignments — especially math lessons — reached beyond the bounds of her abilities as a parent-teacher. Sometimes the older kids were able to help; for example, Tytasia showed Xavier an easier way to solve a math problem when his teacher’s lesson didn’t make sense to him.
By the second week in June, Trice’s neighborhood near Yesler Terrace had become a central location for protests, as people across the city joined Black Lives Matter marches. On some days, the sound of helicopter rotors beating overhead made it almost impossible to do any school work.
The social movement to fight police brutality hit home in this multiracial family: Trice’s children are African American, Filipino and white. Trice took them to several marches, including the Children’s March on June 13. Nehemiah, with autism, was most severely affected. “He absorbs emotions,” she said. “He’s really trying to wrap his head around this.”
When Xavier, 11, got home from one march, he wrote a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan. “I’m writing this to remind myself to vote when I’m older,” he told his mom.
He wrote about the sadness and anger he felt about police violence. “If we gave less money to the police and more to support and heal our community,” he wrote, “people would trust the government more.” On his Monday walk to Bailey Gatzert, he held up a hand-lettered Black Lives Matter sign.
In late May, Trice was planning to sign all five kids up for summer school. “If I don’t keep them on this routine, they will really, really fall behind,” she said at the time. But three weeks later, as they walked back from school with their last assignments, she was on the fence. She wasn’t sure if she wanted her kids sitting in front of computers throughout the summer. She worried about their frustration.