The boom, boom, boom pattern of announcements from school officials this week sounded eerily similar to the one from five months ago, when districts extended building closures and decided to improvise schooling through a mix of online coursework and assignments on paper.
On Wednesday, several of King County’s largest school districts, including Seattle, said they intend to hold school remotely this fall. In other words, back to school will be back to screens.
The plans affect more than 150,000 children and leave several urgent questions unanswered: How will schools feed and teach students, train educators to teach remotely, and provide other critical services such as child care to the region’s children? And what will be different this time around?
In the spring and now, district leaders’ announcements were light on details. The difference: Decisions last school year were made in the thick of a pandemic. Since then, leaders have had months to prepare for the possibility that buildings couldn’t reopen safely.
But many district leaders offered little insight this week into how they plan to improve the way they deliver online classes, particularly for students who were left out in the spring, such as those who receive special-education services and those who are learning English. This lack of detail comes at a time when many education leaders of color across Washington are raising serious concerns about inequity in schools generally, but particularly during school closures.
As of late Wednesday, the districts that had announced an online-only start to the school year included Auburn, Bellevue, Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Northshore and Seattle. The moves followed a cautionary health report, and in Seattle Public Schools’ case, pressure from its teachers union. Seattle had planned to bring students back into school buildings in the fall using a hybrid model of online and in-person learning, but reversed this plan Wednesday.
Lake Washington School District, one of the state’s largest, joined the group on Thursday.
Online learning got off to a bumpy start in Seattle and elsewhere in King County in the spring: Districts encountered delays in getting technology and internet connectivity to students and instructors, and interruptions to services for students with disabilities. Parents working outside and inside the home said they struggled with the added responsibility of keeping their kids occupied with schoolwork during the day.
The memory of spring, a chaotic scramble that in some cases meant not hearing from teachers for weeks, has families worried about the future.
“I felt terrible,” hearing the news, said Maricela Flores, a single, working mother of two Seattle schools students. “There are people who have access to tutors, good internet and computers who want to do online school … but English is not my first language … (My kids) are going to be behind. I cannot help them.”
Seattle’s decision, relayed in an email from a top district official that was obtained by The Seattle Times, cited current transmission rates in King County as a factor in the decision.
“Superintendent [Denise] Juneau is recommending that Seattle Public Schools, like other districts across the state, start the 2020-2021 school year remotely and continue with this model until further notice,” said the Wednesday morning email.
Shortly after that email went out, district spokesperson Tim Robinson confirmed the recommendation in a statement that cited the support of the Seattle Education Association and Principals Association of Seattle Schools unions.
“The reason for my recommendation is pretty simple,” Juneau said during a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday. “The data shows that the transmission rates of COVID-19 in King County are significantly increasing, and because of that, we cannot really open schools here without risking significant transmission.”
The Seattle School Board is expected to review the recommendation in mid-August and approve a restart plan.
“What we know is that remote learning did not work for families last year. And whatever remote learning looks like this year it needs to be exponentially better and there needs to be a system of accountability,” said Brandon Hersey, a Seattle School Board member who represents the South End. “We have a lot of Black and brown families who reach out and say we only hear from our teacher once or twice a month, or week.”
Juneau agreed that SPS needs to improve its online-learning offerings. Juneau’s recommendation calls for training to better equip educators to teach live lessons online in the fall — a departure from the spring, when it was largely up to individual teachers to decide how or whether to teach online. The superintendent is also asking teachers to participate in implicit bias training.
The district released few specifics, however, about how it would set these plans into motion. It’s unclear when teacher training would begin — and what it will include. It also leaves questions about what families can expect on a day-to-day basis, such as how students will interact with their teachers and peers during lessons. Officials say they will release more information about student schedules soon.
To ensure students receive meals, the district’s proposal would provide food to those who need it. And students who receive special-education services will continue to receive them, officials say; those whose special-education plans requiring in-person services will receive some face-to-face instruction, Juneau said.
The district also wants all students to have a device and internet access, she said. Grading policies, which softened during spring closures, will likely return to a more traditional system, she added.
Juneau also said the district intends to partner with city officials and community groups to ensure families who need child care have access. But she also encouraged local employers to begin thinking about how they can assist their workers with those needs.
Hersey and two other School Board members are advocating for some classes to be taught outdoors instead, releasing a draft proposal last week. At the news conference, Juneau said it was an innovative idea. Seattle teachers union president Jennifer Matter said last week she hadn’t had the chance to review the proposal yet, but that negotiations would remain centered on remote learning.
Over the past week, other surrounding districts such as Bellevue, Northshore, Highline, Federal Way, Auburn and Kent announced they would reopen remotely, too.
Local efforts were coordinated, to some extent. The superintendents of Highline, Kent, Federal Way, Auburn, Renton and Seattle spoke with one another daily about their plans for the start of the school year, Highline Superintendent Susan Enfield wrote Wednesday in a letter to families.
On Thursday, Lake Washington School District, the state’s second largest by student enrollment, joined the group.
Those notices came around the same time as a news release from state schools chief Chris Reykdal saying decisions to go online were ultimately up to districts. A similarly timed statement from Seattle and King County health officials also supported the superintendents.
Highline’s Enfield noted that more than 35% of the King County school district’s staff said they’re in a high-risk group for COVID-19, and nearly 29% of teachers live with someone in a high-risk group.
“The very best I can do is find a way forward that has the least negative impacts on the most — and most vulnerable — people,” Enfield wrote.
In letters to families, several school district superintendents used nearly identical language to explain why they needed to close schools: that “as the person who ultimately bears responsibility for the health and safety” of the district community, they “cannot in good conscience” open buildings in the fall.
In Bellevue, students will begin school with remote learning and continue for at least six weeks, the district announced Wednesday. At that point, the district will evaluate whether rates have lowered enough for students and teachers to return to school without a significant risk of COVID-19 transmission.
The school district said that it plans to offer some child care services for students with specific needs and learning support, but did not elaborate on how those services will be provided. More than two-thirds of families said in a survey conducted by the district that they would want to return to school under an earlier proposal, which involved a combination of in-person and distance learning.
Will fall be better?
There’s little concrete information on how effectively schools were able to teach students at home, but Reykdal is hoping for improvements. Districts that choose the virtual path are expected to take daily attendance and assign work as usual, he said — this was not a requirement over the last few months. They are also expected to provide meals to children who need them, and ensure students have devices and internet connectivity so they can work online.
In April, about a month after districts began operating online, SPS said a little more than 70% of its 54,000 students had logged into its online learning platform, compared with about 60% of Black male students, a population that the district has promised to prioritize in its decision-making.
Seattle’s decision makes it one of several large districts in the country to reverse course on its plan to teach students in person, including Los Angeles Unified and San Diego. In those places, also, strong union pushback and tighter statewide coronavirus restrictions preceded the decisions.
A recent report from state health officials warned that reopening schools in King County would not be safe unless transmission rates decreased. The report, which suggested ways to resume in-person schooling safely, was based on data from mid-June — but stated that buildings should not reopen if July’s transmission rates persisted.
The health risks of bringing people back to school buildings, clashes over mask wearing and threats from President Donald Trump and federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to withhold funding from districts that don’t reopen have put the question of resuming in-person classes in the middle of a political firestorm.
What parents and educators want
Earlier this month, Matter, the SEA president, released a statement calling the district’s reopening plan “reckless” under current conditions. An email from SEA leadership obtained by The Seattle Times showed the results of a survey of 1,600 of its members, conducted before the release of the King County study: About 52% of teachers would have been comfortable returning to schools with a nurse on site. Like most others in the state, the district does not have a nurse in every school building.
The same email stated the union hadn’t taken a position on a reopening model. But just a day later, after news emerged that the district had been planning to bring kindergartners back four to five times a week, Matter said trust had been broken because the district hadn’t informed teachers ahead of time. She released the statement opposing the hybrid reopening model the same weekend as DeVos and Trump made threats about withholding funding if schools did not open.
In the same union survey, 27% of respondents said they do not have the technology necessary to do their jobs remotely.
A survey of Seattle parents in the spring found most preferred that their children return to school in a hybrid model, according to the district, but most respondents were white families, who make up less than half of SPS enrollment.
To turn a new page in the fall, school engagement with families of color and recent immigrant communities — deficient even in pre-pandemic times — needs to improve, said Selam Misgano, a community engagement specialist at the University of Washington who has been helping connect Ethiopean parents to resources since spring.
In-person communication or phone calls are the best for families whose primary language isn’t English, she said. Parents used to chat with teachers when they dropped their kids off at school. As districts began relying even more on written communication and email surveys, it has left some parents even more in the dark.
“When you have parents who don’t feel confident in how they engage with the school you’re gonna have kids who struggle and fall behind because they don’t have the support system,” said Misgano.
The best step schools can take under the current circumstances is to call parents more, she said, and offer more regular opportunities to speak to teachers through interpreters.