While awaiting her COVID-19 test results, Seattle Schools teacher Caitlin Honig spent eight hours over the weekend reworking lesson plans for absent students who either tested positive for COVID, were exposed and have to quarantine, or feel unsafe at school right now. 

Since last week, after winter break ended, Honig says about a third of her students have been absent every day. That means she must adapt her current lesson plans and class projects for her students to do at home and independently. 

“What’s going on right now is not working and it’s not sustainable,” the social studies and language arts teacher at Franklin High School said. “I’m not able to do my job equitably because there’s such a large number of students absent and I can’t be doing two types of teaching at the same time.”

One week after the end of winter break, educators said they were growing worried about their ability to teach school safely as COVID cases soared among students and teachers.

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Classes were canceled Monday and Tuesday at Seattle’s Franklin High School and Kimball Elementary School because of staffing shortages. Seattle Public Schools leaders are also weighing whether to bring back remote instruction temporarily. 

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“At this time, we are working to determine if this will be all in-person, all remote, or some classes in-person and some classes remote,” a statement from Seattle Public Schools officials said. “This decision will be based on a review of staff attendance data.”

The district’s COVID-19 dashboard, updated Monday night, showed a sharp uptick in cases so far this month, with 803 cases in the first week of January. In the last week of school before the holidays, the district recorded 139 cases.

Seattle wasn’t the only district affected by COVID. On Monday, Lake Washington High School in Kirkland shifted back to remote learning temporarily due to COVID-related staffing shortages, other illnesses and absences. On Tuesday, Redmond High also went remote.

State schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal has warned parents that some local school districts may need to close temporarily over the next three to four weeks. While state-mandated preventive measures make schools among the safer public spaces, a lack of staff may force a district or individual school building to shut down, he said.

The uncertainty of whether Seattle Schools will return to online instruction has added to the anxiety students have felt since the pandemic began, said Natalie Weinstein, a counselor at Franklin High. 

“Students have a lot of questions that we’re not able to answer, like if we’re going remote, and I think that adds to the anxiety and fear around COVID,” Weinstein said. 

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SPS didn’t offer a remote learning option to Franklin students Monday, and Franklin High union representatives, who are part of the Seattle Education Association, said there wasn’t a clear reason why.

“Our staff is very concerned about the health and safety conditions of our building,” a statement from Franklin educators said. “Many teachers are out with positive COVID cases or waiting on test results after showing symptoms.”

Honig, who got a COVID test because she was symptomatic and is still awaiting results, believes Seattle Schools should return to remote learning for a few weeks to give students stability and teachers the bandwidth to teach all their students equitably. In addition to changing lesson plans to accommodate absent students, teachers have been filling in for colleagues during their prep periods — cutting out time teachers use to plan.

Franklin’s building safety team deemed the school unsafe for many reasons, including not having enough substitutes, no available COVID testing because of staff absences, lack of support and guidance, lack of transportation for students in special education, and the discontinuation of contract tracing, according to Franklin union representatives.

Schools are prepared to return to online learning if it’s necessary, said Tim Robinson, Seattle Schools spokesperson. Each student has either a laptop or tablet they can take home, and the district has hot spots available for internet access.

In an email to Seattle Schools employees, the district said it will weigh a variety of factors in deciding to return to remote learning: its total staffing numbers, the layout of a school, the ability to maintain health protocols, student absence trends, community transmission rates, and input from public health officials.

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The district might move to a 10-day remote learning period if the elementary student absentee rate approaches 50%, secondary schools reach an absentee rate of 40%, or 10% of secondary schools are COVID-positive across multiple classrooms.

The district might also go fully remote if 50% of its K-5 and K-8 schools are learning remotely, or if 25% of all SPS schools are remote.

At Lake Washington, the school district assigned students attending Lake Washington High School to learn independently from home on Monday and Tuesday while staff made the switch to live online learning with a teacher. Lake Washington High students will be distance learning from Wednesday until Jan. 18, and return to in-person learning Jan. 19. 

“To be clear, this is not a case where the health department is dictating closure due to an on-campus outbreak,” Lake Washington officials said. ”This decision is being made by our district due to our inability to safely operate school as a result of so many staff being absent and the number of unfilled sub positions.”

Chrissy Dahms, a West Seattle High social studies teacher, said she would like to see the district also go back to remote learning temporarily. On Friday, just over 20% of the 144 students she sees during the day were out, about the same percentage as the school as a whole, according to Dahms. She said she heard from some who had tested positive for COVID, and from others scared of coming to school and getting it.

Dahms worried about those students falling behind, whereas they could participate if classes were virtual. And this is an especially hard time to miss out on learning for high schoolers, she said, because finals and the end of the semester are coming up at the end of January. With many concerned about their high school transcripts, “this is kind of their last opportunity to improve their grades,” she said.

“I feel like students could handle it if we were to go into online learning for two or three weeks,” she added. “That’s not the same situation as it was a year ago, when there was no end in sight.” Remote learning would also be easier this time around because teachers have built a relationship with students over several months of in-person classes, she said.

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Seattle Times reporter Nina Shapiro contributed to this report.