Chanie Sanford woke her daughters Mkinnley, 6, and Saniyah, 11, at 6 a.m. on Friday and told them to shower, eat breakfast and get dressed. 

Bright and early, they were up for an extraordinary first day of school: online, and at home.

When it came time to jump on their calls with teachers, Sanford sat with them at the colorful workspace she’d carved out for them in their West Seattle home — a ritual she intends to keep. Mkinnley, who started first grade at Leschi Elementary School, spent her day with new classmates playing ice-breaker games. She drew a picture of her friends playing at recess, then held it up to her device’s camera.

Saniyah, a sixth-grader at David T. Denny International Middle School, met her classmates during a two-hour call. She could only hear their voices. The screen was blank for some of her peers, too. 

Seattle Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, kicked off its “soft start” to school Friday. As was the case for Sanford’s daughters, glitches made for a bumpy morning in some homes. Students here and elsewhere have been away from school buildings for nearly six months. And while the district is slated to return to full remote instruction on Sept. 14, there are no immediate plans to resume learning in-person.

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BACK TO ‘SCHOOL’

This story is part of a series about what it’s like to start the school year during a pandemic.

On Friday, students spent a few hours getting to know their teachers and classmates over Microsoft Teams, but many families reported difficulty getting on the platform. Some were booted out or could only hear their teacher’s or classmates’ voices.

“We are currently experiencing slow internet and learning platform access due to the high volume of traffic this morning. This has resulted in disruption of service on district-issued laptops,” SPS spokesman Tim Robinson wrote in an email. 

Later in the day, Superintendent Denise Juneau wrote that the district’s technology department planned to update systems on all district-issued devices. “Today’s experience with technology is exactly why we are implementing the Strong Start week,” she wrote. “This week gives us time to test out the technology, work out the issues, and focus on relationships and building community.”

The Seattle Times collected dispatches from children and educators to gain a window into how the start to an unprecedented new school year — amid a global pandemic and national racial justice movements — unfolded. These glimpses paint a mixed picture of delight when things went to plan — and frustration, when technical problems kept children and teachers from connecting online.

When home is a homeless shelter: 

When school buildings closed this spring due to the coronavirus, King County’s largest family shelter system, Mary’s Place, was thrown into chaos.

For the nearly 700 parents and children in their system, schools provided child care while parents worked, applied to jobs or looked for housing.

As fall term starts, many questions remain about how schooling can work in a homeless shelter.

Some families have secured housing, shrinking the number of school-age kids in the shelters to 130 (not all attend SPS). Of those, only 85 had their devices as of Friday. 

At the Mary’s Place Regrade shelter in the heart of Amazon’s campus, the “Kids Club” — a play area used mostly by toddlers before the pandemic, as evidenced by the Cabbage Patch Kids and storybooks sitting off to the side — has been turned into a remote learning center. Parents who are having trouble connecting to Wi-Fi or getting signed into Seattle Public Schools’ online systems can go there for help, where staff are standing by mostly for tech support.

Up against a window looking out on the Amazon Spheres, Sabina Rai, who leads youth services at the shelter, communicated via Google Translate with a young boy whose first language is Spanish. Many of the families at this shelter don’t speak English as their primary language. Some don’t speak English at all. There are a large number of Ethiopian and Eritrean families who are new to the country or the area, according to Marta Asfaw, youth services director at Mary’s Place.

On his first day of school, the young boy worried about explaining why he’s wearing a mask on Zoom.

“If they tell you to take off your mask,” Rai typed into Google Translate, “tell them you’re in a classroom with other students.” 

Teachers don’t always know if their students are homeless, but now that SPS and most districts in Washington are starting the year online, students run the risk of having their housing status exposed. So Mary’s Place staff tell them to say they’re in “learning pods” or other in-person programs, Rai said.

“Thinking of everything that could go wrong — that’s my specialty,” Rai said.

Still, there are things the staff didn’t expect. The Wi-Fi hot spots families received from SPS gave out “spotty” signals, Rai said. And even though the Regrade shelter has boosted its broadband signal, on Friday morning the shelter’s Wi-Fi went out.

Asfaw said, laughing: “It’s been a fun morning so far.”

Slow start:

The first day back to school usually brings on anxiety. But in a pandemic, those jitters take on a new meaning, especially for parents like Chanie Sanford. 

She lives every day knowing that complications from a recent heart attack may cut short her time with her daughters. She counts every second with them, especially their schooling, as an opportunity to leave them with a solid foundation — should that time come. 

“I will give them everything I have,” said Sanford, 32. “Someday I won’t be there for them.”

The technical issues her daughters experienced are nothing new for Sanford, who had difficulty securing a laptop from the district last spring. They found ways around the barriers, including getting assistance from a mentor at the nonprofit Friends of the Children, who helped get activity packets for the girls to complete. 

Like many parents, she expressed frustration that the district didn’t share many of the details about this school year until the last minute. She’s just starting to hear more information about Saniyah’s special-education services for the first time since spring, she said. If the communication doesn’t improve, she’s worried her daughters will fall behind.

Elsewhere in the district, some teachers and families called the first day back “chaotic,” while others celebrated small successes.

Michelle Farrell, a special-education teacher who instructs students with visual impairments, said many of her students lacked basic supplies, such as large-print and Braille books. “We have been understaffed and student materials were not ordered by the district in a timely manner.”

She and her colleagues are stressed, she said. “We all want to do the best we can for our students, and everyone would prefer to be back to our pre-pandemic model of school. Sadly, that is not possible right now.”

For Sam Friedman, a fifth-grade teacher at Wedgwood Elementary, excitement early in the day gave way to confusion when students’ screens started freezing. Eventually, Friedman asked students to turn off their cameras.

“Despite these myriad issues, I and my students were able to introduce ourselves. Almost every student was able to see my cute PowerPoint slides! We even got to do a quick journaling activity,” Friedman said. “By the end of our time together, I felt so proud of these tenacious and patient students.”

Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrectly spelled Chanie Sanford’s last name as Stamford.